The North American Meat Institute is suing California over Proposition 12 passed last November. The law established minimum space requirements for the confinement of laying hens, breeding pigs and veal calves and banned the sale of raw pork or veal from animals not meeting them. In a release, NAMI claimed the law is unconstitutional and an "overreach" by California that will "hurt the nation’s food value chain by significantly increasing costs for producers and consumers."
Julie Anna Potts, NAMI President and CEO, said in a statement that Prop 12 means higher consumer prices for pork, veal and eggs and "unfairly punishes" livestock producers from outside the state by making them spend millions more to access California markets. "If this unconstitutional law is allowed to stand, California will dictate farming practices across the nation," she said.
The group is asking the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to grant a preliminary and permanent injunction stopping implementation or enforcement of the sales ban on veal or pork from other states. NAMI also is looking for a declaratory judgment that Prop 12 violates the Constitution and is unenforceable.
It's not surprising that NAMI, which represents beef, pork, lamb and poultry producers, argues Prop 12 unfairly penalizes both producers and consumers. The group pointed out in its release that California's own economic analysis of the law's impact found consumer prices for eggs, pork and veal were likely to increase as farmers remodeled or built new animal housing, and that it might take several years for enough of them to meet the new requirements.
As a result, the state projected there might be a shortfall of these items — with those that meet the new requirements commanding a higher price — until farmers can adjust to meet demand. But economic concerns apparently didn't worry many California voters since Prop 12 passed with nearly 63% support in November 2018. The specific space requirements for laying hens don't go into effect until the end of this year, while those for veal calves and breeding pigs must be complied with by 2020 and 2022, respectively.
Animal welfare was a major impetus behind Prop 12, which the Humane Society of the United States and a number of other animal protection groups supported. The Center for Food Safety also endorsed Prop 12 because it said research showed small cages can encourage the spread of foodborne pathogens such as salmonella. However, the NAMI lawsuit asserts confinement has no relationship to the risk of foodborne illnesses, at least when it comes to meat from a sow's offspring. But some medical experts say animals under stress from intensive confinement have compromised immune systems and are more susceptible to salmonella and E. coli infections.
The price argument may be a more convincing route for Prop 12 opponents to take. California consumers paid more for eggs after animal welfare laws went into effect there in 2015. A Purdue University study found they initially had to pay 33% more, but prices fell to about 9% more after that.
Other states — including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — have adopted similar animal confinement laws, although Massachusetts is the only one to have stringent animal welfare regulations comparable to California's. Massachusetts was sued by Indiana and 12 other states about its cage-free voter initiative, but the U.S. Supreme Court barred that complaint in January — along with refusing to hear a similar challenge of California's cage-free law.
This NAMI lawsuit could gain some traction given its emphasis on unconstitutionality and the alleged hampering of interstate commerce. But it's hard to tell whether it will ultimately be successful unless the group's lawyers can show tangible damages to out-of-state veal, pork and egg producers. It's also possible the federal court might stop California from enforcing Prop 12 until NAMI's arguments are addressed to its satisfaction, but that assumes the plaintiff's claims are convincing enough to overturn the voters' will.
While this unfolds, meat processors such as Tyson Foods and Sanderson Farms may be closely watching to see how animal confinement laws evolve across the country at both the state and court levels should they be considering a new plant or expanding an existing one.