Iowa lawsuit over California’s hog-confinement law headed for a hearing

By: - July 20, 2021 3:55 pm

A federal judge will hear arguments next month in a case that involves Iowa pork producers and their challenge of a California state law restricting the sale of pork in that state.

The Iowa Pork Producers Association has requested a preliminary injunction that would block enforcement of California’s Proposition 12. The state of California has moved to dismiss the pork producers’ lawsuit. Both motions are expected to be addressed during an Aug. 13 hearing at Cedar Rapids’ federal courthouse.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 12. The 2018 California state law imposes restrictions on pork sold within that state with the intent of ensuring that breeding pigs have enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. One element of the law defines as “cruel confinement” a breeding-pig enclosure that provides less than 24 square feet – the equivalent of a 6-foot by 4-foot area – of usable floor space per pig.

The law applies to all of the pork sold in California, regardless of where it was raised. Nearly one-third of the hogs raised in America come from Iowa. In 2020, Iowa had 960,000 breeding pigs on Iowa farms. The lawsuit alleges that for these breeding pigs to be raised in compliance with Proposition 12’s restrictions, Iowa producers would, collectively, be forced to spend “tens of millions of dollars” on an annual basis.

The lawsuit also claims California residents are responsible for 13% to 15% of the pork consumed in the United States. “Not selling to California is not an option,” the lawsuit states.

“The vast majority of Iowa pork producers are not currently in compliance with California’s turn-around requirements or 24-square-foot restrictions, and the estimated cost to come into compliance with these restrictions could reach millions of dollars” for individual pork producers, the lawsuit claims. Proposition 12, the producers’ association says, seeks to “unilaterally impose sweeping changes across the national pork production industry, based exclusively on California’s preferences.”

The lawsuit also claims Proposition 12 “threatens the public supply of pork within California, which is necessary to satisfy the needs of hospitals, schools, and prisons. Without adequate pork supply, these institutions are threatened irreparably.”

When enforcement begins in January 2022, Proposition 12 imposes criminal penalties that include fines of up to $1,000 or 180 days imprisonment for any person found to be in violation of the act. Violators are also subject to a $2,500 fine per violation under the state’s consumer protection law.

In its response to the pork producers’ claims, California authorities note that the law is enforced only at the first point of sale within California and thus applies only to sellers within that state, not to farmers in Iowa or other states.

They say that despite this fact, the pork producers’ association is asking the court to “take the unprecedented step of reaching across the country to enjoin California from enforcing its own laws within its own borders. Tellingly, they do not identify a single case entertaining, let alone granting, relief in such circumstances.”

The pork producers’ association says Proposition 12 is a “protectionist trade barrier with a discriminatory intent” and is designed to protect California’s in-state pork producers, already subject to hog-confinement restrictions, from competition by out-of-state producers who until the law’s passage were not subject to such restrictions.

California state officials are currently challenging the association’s request for expedited handling of the case, noting that it “waited more than two-and-a-half years after California voters enacted Proposition 12 to file this suit.” They note that lawsuits “nearly identical” to the one filed by the association have been working their way through the courts for the past two years.

They have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing out that three federal courts – district courts in the southern and the central districts of California, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – have considered the constitutionality of Proposition 12 and held that the constitutional challenges to the law are unlikely to succeed on the merits.

They also note that a 2010 law that predates Proposition 12 prohibited the sale of eggs in California if the chickens that produced the eggs were confined in a cruel manner. Six egg-producing states challenged that law, citing the commerce clause of the Constitution, but the case was ultimately dismissed.

One other case challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 12 is still pending in the California courts. The National Pork Producers Council, of which the Iowa association is a member, and the American Farm Bureau Federation filed suit in 2019. The district court dismissed the case and the NPPC then filed an appeal, which is still pending.

A separate case, filed by the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing meat packers and processors, was also filed in 2019 and sought an injunction challenging Proposition 12’s standards for veal and pork products sold in California. The district court denied the institute’s request for an injunction. That decision was upheld by the Ninth Circuit, and last month the U.S. Supreme Court indicated it would not hear an appeal of that decision.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.