Foodtank | California Crate-Free Law Offers Hog Farmers Economic Opportunity

Reposted from:

February 20, 2024

Consumers should not believe the hype. California’s Proposition 12 is not putting hog farmers out of business. In fact, Prop 12 provides savvy farmers with the opportunity to sell their crate-free pork at a higher price into a stable marketplace. But a small group of policymakers are putting this much-needed economic opportunity at risk through the misguided Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act (S.2019 and H.R.4417), and similar iterations.

California’s Prop 12, and Massachusetts’ similar Question 3, requires that fresh pork sold into the state be raised on farms not using gestation crates. These 7×2 foot crates house pregnant pigs for days, weeks and even months without giving animals the ability to stand up, turn around and lie down. Animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin compares gestation crates to being strapped into an airplane seat for months at a time.

While gestation crates are the dominant industry practice today, they are out of touch with consumers’ animal care expectations. Both Prop 12 and Question 3 passed with sweeping voter support. A 2021 poll found that 75 percent of Americans say retailers and restaurants have a responsibility to ensure that gestation crates are not used by suppliers.

As general manager of high animal welfare meat brand Niman Ranch, which today works with a community of 500 plus Certified Humane® crate-free hog farmers, Prop 12 is a positive development. Not only does the law align with our animal care values, it also creates a stable market for crate-free pork that corporate commitments alone can’t provide. I’ve seen it time and time again: a company pledges to meet a certain attribute but walks it back with a leadership change or when market conditions shift. Prop 12 assures this flip flopping won’t be the case for gestation-crate free pork in California.

For too long, the conventional meat industry has been hyper-focused on efficiency and producing large amounts of cheap meat, while losing sight of the unintended consequences for livestock and farmers. Prop 12 is the right thing for both the animals and farmers, but it needs to be done in a structured manner where pork producers have support and dedicated markets. With Prop 12 fully implemented, there is market certainty and a clear path forward for those in the industry who want to participate in this opportunity.

Here are the facts: Prop 12 does not force any farm to go crate-free to comply with the law. No one is being forced to sell their pork into California. Experts estimate just 8 percent of mother pigs in North America will need to comply with Prop 12 to fulfill California’s fresh pork needs, leaving the remaining 92 percent free to stay unchanged and sell into the rest of the country.

Despite the sky-is-falling prophecies of barren grocery store shelves, Prop 12 compliant supply has proven more than adequate and many of the companies that fought the animal welfare law in the courts have found a way to convert operations to meet the requirements. This is in addition to the companies that have been crate-free since the beginning, like Niman Ranch, as well as those who used the several years following the law’s passage to prepare for Prop 12 compliance.

Despite the adoption of gestation-crate free practices across the industry, some powerful voices are pushing for Prop 12 to be rolled back through far-reaching proposals inserted into the new Farm Bill like the EATS Act. They are arguing Prop 12 is putting farmers out of business and their proposed solution is a sweeping federal overreach that not only would roll back Prop 12 but many other state animal welfare laws and beyond. I would flip the Prop 12 opposition’s argument on its head and contend that the law offers opportunity for specialized producers to sell more pork at a better price. And this isn’t just a benefit to the pigs and farmers; these niche producers have been shown to bring more jobs and economic value into their rural communities.

We can all agree it is a challenging time for the pork industry. But that is not because of Prop 12. There are countless factors at play from high grain prices, limited labor, industry consolidation and more. Rolling back Prop 12 won’t improve commodity producers’ outlook as the challenges facing much of the industry were present long before the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Farm Bill negotiations and drafting are well underway. We hope that rather than spending time trying to overturn Prop 12 through misguided measures like the EATS Act, the pork industry and policymakers instead focus on forward-thinking opportunities to help farmers meet consumer demand for higher welfare meat.