Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told state agriculture directors to fasten their Prop 12 seat belts on Wednesday because “we’re going to have to get to a point where … chaos becomes really prevalent” in the meat market before there’s a decision on who regulates interstate trade. “We are in for a bumpy time,” he said.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 12 animal welfare law last May, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing in the court’s primary opinion, “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.” The pork industry wants Congress to override the decision. A pork processor has filed suit against a similar law in Massachusetts in hopes of winning a reversal in court.
Voter-approved Prop 12 requires farmers to provide 28 square feet of room for each breeding sow — more than the industry standard — and bars the sale of whole, uncooked cuts of pork, such as bacon and ribs, from hogs raised on farms outside of California that do not meet that standard. The pork industry says California, the most populous state, is bullying hog farmers nationwide into adopting its rules and driving up costs. At present, there is a $5.91 premium per 100 pounds carcass weight for hogs that comply with “animal confinement legislation,” according to USDA.
The current-day dispute over the pork trade has echoes from the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to replace the dysfunctional Articles of Confederacy adopted after the American Revolution, said Vilsack. The Constitution elevated the power of the federal government while preserving state authority. Legislation to override Prop 12 would knock out hundreds of state consumer and safety laws, according to opponents.
“This is a really complicated problem, and everybody wants a simple answer,” said Vilsack. More states could join California and Massachusetts in setting standards for the pork trade, further fracturing the pork distribution chain.
“I think we’re going to have to get to a point where that chaos becomes really prevalent and really understood not just by the farmers. Maybe then the politics of it become such that we’ll do what James Madison and his colleagues did — creating some kind of standard here that provides more stability,” said Vilsack. “I don’t think there’s the political capacity up there to do much about it.”