U.S. Supreme Court rejects pork producers’ challenge of California law

By: - May 11, 2023 3:08 pm
Sow nose to nose with a piglet in a pen.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an Iowa organization’s challenge to a law imposing restrictions on the sale of pork in California. (Photo by Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an Iowa organization’s challenge to a law imposing restrictions on the sale of pork in California.

The decision marks a significant defeat for Iowa pork producers who have long argued that California’s law, backed by animal-welfare advocates, would disrupt the agricultural industry by allowing states to dictate the conduct of producers in other states.

U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra appears on Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press” show on Dec. 18, 2020. (Screenshot from Iowa PBS)

U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, a Republican from Hull, said he was outraged by the decision, which he called an “attack on rural America” that would have “devastating” consequences for Iowa hog farmers and rural communities. “Quite frankly,” he said, “California liberals have no jurisdiction over how Iowa farmers raise our hens and hogs.”

Last year, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig praised the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, calling it “the first step in preserving the rights of our farmers, protecting the well-being of our livestock and ensuring consumers have access to affordable food.”

On Thursday, Naig condemned the court’s decision, saying it undermines the “American way of life” and efforts to produce “the safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply in the world.”

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation that sought to nullify a California law dealing with hog confinement.

The measure, approved by California voters in 2018, 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. But nearly one-third of the hogs raised in America come from Iowa, where pork producers said they’d be forced to spend up to $350 million to meet California’s standards.

A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“Companies that choose to sell products in a various states must normally comply with laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”


Decision praised by animal-welfare advocates

The court’s decision affirms a July 2021 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with California and found that the law applied the same standards for in-state pork producers as those from out of state.

Gorsuch was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice John Roberts argued the pork producers had “plausibly alleged a substantial burden on interstate commerce” and suggested the case should have been sent back to the appeals court for further review.

Tarah Heinzen, legal director for Food & Water Watch, praised the court’s decision.

“Today’s high court ruling is a rightful victory for sustainable, humane farming against giant corporations that prioritize cost-cutting and profit margins over the environment, food safety and animal welfare,” Heinzen said. “It is also a critical victory for the rights of states that seek to do better on those issues than some of their neighbors, or the country at large.”

Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, led by Wayne Pacelle, who backed the California law known as Proposition 12, called the decision a win for “Americans who want to know that animals raised for food were not immobilized and otherwise tormented” in the pork-production process.

“Today’s landmark ruling affirms the right of states to institute policies to promote anti-cruelty and food safety standards,” Pacelle said. “The pork industry has for decades blocked any rules at the federal level to promote the humane treatment of farm animals and this was their attempt to gut state rules, too.”

“We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court’s opinion,” said Scott Hays, president of the National Pork Producers Council, which is based in Urbandale. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation. We are still evaluating the court’s full opinion to understand all the implications.”

Trish Cook, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, expressed frustration with the court’s decision.

“The health and safety of their pigs are a top priority for Iowa pig farmers,” she said. “This ruling sets a bad precedent, enabling other states to regulate commerce outside their boundaries. Consumers, especially low-income ones who rely on affordable nutritious pork to feed their families, will ultimately suffer due to higher food prices.”

Naig said while the ruling was focused on agricultural production, “it will certainly creep into other industries” and allow the largest states to “dictate the laws and regulations for consumers and businesses” throughout the nation.

“This sets the stage for a state-by-state patchwork of ever-changing and costly requirements that will increase the cost of production and drive higher costs for food and other consumer products,” Naig said.

Although it has been five years since California voters approved Proposition 12, implementation of all of the law’s provisions has been stayed by litigation and by efforts to draft a regulatory framework for enforcement.


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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.