Opinion: California Prop 12 could reshape nation’s commerce of eggs, veal and pork

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Anyone who has followed California agricultural politics in recent years knows residents have a soft spot in their humane hearts for animals raised for production or slaughter.

That's baby cows, fowls, and sows y’all.

California fired its first shot for humane treatment of farm animals way back in 2008 with the Humane Society led ballot initiative Proposition 2.  California voters overwhelming passed Prop 2 63-to-36 percent banning confinement of egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal, and pregnant pigs.

The initiative did not provide specific square-foot guidelines as to what constitutes confinement but rather required that animals needed to turn freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. Ranchers had until 2015 to comply with the new law.

Needless to say, California egg producers freaked out, saying the proposition would put them at an economic disadvantage.  In a nutshell, egg farmers believed California would be flooded by an import of eggs from other states and their producers who were not required to meet Prop 2's confinement standards.

But the California state legislature closed that loophole in 2010 requiring out-of-state egg producers to comply with Prop 2's confinement standards.

To nobody's surprise the signed law, AB 1437, ended up in the courts.  In 2012, egg producers filed Cramer v. Harris et al. in Federal District Court alleging Prop 2 is unconstitutionally vague.  But the courts disagreed. The United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit  ruled:

“Cramer argues that because Proposition 2 does not specify minimum cage sizes for egg-laying hens, no one can be certain what sizes do or do not violate the statute. He is incorrect. All Proposition 2 requires is that each chicken be able to extend its limbs fully and turn around freely. This can be readily discerned using objective criteria. Because hens have a wing span and a turning radius that can be observed and measured, a person of reasonable intelligence can determine the dimensions of an appropriate confinement that will comply with Proposition 2.”

Most recently egg producers are taking a second (and third )bite of the apple, renewing their court challenge against Prop 2.  Thirteen states are calling on the Supreme Court to nullify Prop 2.

Missouri and company say Prop 2 violates the nation's Commerce Clause regarding interstate trade.  The states say Prop 2 is so egregious that it needs to bypass district and appellate courts as an Article III original dispute between states.  Never mind that Missouri previous LOST the case in November of 2016 when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Susan Graber wrote “the unavoidable uncertainty of the alleged future changes in price makes the alleged injury insufficient for Article III standing.”

By now you have concluded this fight over humane agricultural animal standards is something of a thing in California.  But you haven't seen anything yet. The war is about to go nuclear.

Hello Proposition 12.  California voters approved the proposition earlier this month and it's an eye-opener.

Beginning in 2020, Prop 12 requires producers to provide at least 43 square feet of usable floor space per calf and each egg-laying hen one square foot of usable floor space.

But that's just the preamble.  In 2022, producers must provide at least 24 square feet of usable floor space for each breeding pig and its offspring as well as cage free housing of 1-to-1-and-a-half square feet for each egg-laying hen in accordance with United Egg Producers 2017 guidelines.  Hens must be able to freely move around their area.

And here's the kicker.  Under Prop 12 it will be illegal for out of state producers to sell to California wholesalers and retailers veal from calves, uncooked pork from breeding pigs, and shelled and liquid eggs from hens when the animals are confined to areas below minimum square-feet requirements.

Obviously, this potentially impacts the nation's largest pork and egg producers like Smithfield Foods and Cal-Main.  And it likely impacts California consumers as well.

I expect an increase in retail prices for pork, veal and eggs until enough farmers in California change animal housing systems.  The big question is whether the courts will require that out-of-state ag-giants comply with Prop 12 in order to trade with California ... and if so, what will the Smithfield Foods of the world do.  Food Armageddon awaits.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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