Thursday, December 28, 2023

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

As the New Year dawns, we rightly celebrate the dozens of humane laws taking effect in 2024, signs of a better day for animals everywhere. Those laws address a range of animal protection concerns including pet store sales of puppies from puppy mills, the use of animals in toxicity testing, direct contact with dangerous wild animals, and humane standards for dogs living outdoors.

And there’s good news on another front. As the sands in the hourglass ran out on 2023, so did the six-month extension that permitted the sale of any remaining non-compliant pork products already in California’s stream of commerce under Proposition 12. The state delayed enforcement of this epoch-making law’s space requirements for pigs to accommodate California retailers. That’s behind us now, giving us another chance to acknowledge one of the most consequential animal welfare laws in American history, one that addresses the abject cruelty of gestation crate confinement of pigs raised for food.

We wish we could celebrate unanimous support within the pork industry itself for the humane provisions of Proposition 12, but we can’t yet do so. That’s because, to a great degree, crate confinement of pigs is the subject of a civil war within the industry, one that pits those producers who see the strong headwinds of humane progress blowing ––and recognize the financial opportunities they foretell––and those outliers still trying to stave off the inexorable shift away from shameful and dangerous factory farming production methods. This handful of laggard pork producers disgracefully wedded to low welfare production practices has even lined up a few defenders in the U.S. Congress, who are pushing the EATS Act and trying to subvert Proposition 12 and related measures through potential amendments to the Farm Bill.

Their stubbornness is not just a shame. It goes directly against the public interest and the public will. For many years, we’ve successfully made the case against extreme confinement methods in agriculture as both cruel to animals and dangerous to human interests and health. We made that case in building support for Proposition 12 and we made it again and again while defending the law in the courts. We made that same case in other states that passed laws to reform and eliminate these inhumane practices. We’ve also made that case in the court of public opinion, to good effect; a 2022 poll found that 80% of Americans—including more than three-quarters of Republicans—want to see a law like Proposition 12 pass in their states.

That leaves the recalcitrant pork faction with one last resort, the disingenuous claim that the law and similar measures threaten to inflate the price of pork. And this claim has been disingenuous for quite some time already. In 2007, Iowa State University researchers concluded that group housing could produce weaned pigs at a lower cost than in gestation crate confinement systems. In 2011, Oklahoma State University researchers determined that there would be less than a nickel’s increase in the per pound costs of producing finished hogs in a crate-free system than in a gestation crate operation, lower than any established degree of consumer willingness-to-pay thresholds. More recently, in December 2022, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report indicated that state sales bans might produce short-term price increases but communicated no concern about long-term price effects. Other analysts have predicted that the market will rebalance for producers and consumers in a relatively short time.

It’s also telling that some of the largest companies in the pork industry have not signaled concern about rising prices in this regard. Hormel Foods, Clemens Food Group, Perdue and Tyson Foods have all issued statements saying that they are ready to meet demand for crate-free pork produced in accordance with Proposition 12 standards. And in early December, when asked to assess the contemporary landscape, the CEO of Smithfield, the world’s largest producer, cited industry oversupply, weak consumer demand and high feed prices as the most pressing challenges the company faced, and did not mention Proposition 12.

In recent years, Smithfield and other big producers have repeatedly been sued and entered into settlements involving hundreds of millions of dollars for conspiring to fix prices in the $20 billion annual pork market. It’s hard to take seriously the claim that Proposition 12 could be responsible for runaway costs against the backdrop of the major producers’ conspiring to restrict supply in attempts to maintain prices at artificially high levels.

For the larger picture we have to look at the producers who have championed the law in a full-throated way, smaller scale independent family farmers who produce pork and have embraced Proposition 12 already, the interest holders who view growing consumer preference for more humane pork products as an opportunity to expand their profits by meeting demand, and the larger producers who have committed to crate-free systems with faith in the market and a desire to see a stable and consistent playing field for the industry, based on humane standards.

We hope that 2024 will be the year in which the obstructionists give up their attempts to frame humane reforms in the industry as a case of California vs. the Heartland. It’s false framing, and it’s worth noting that countless voters or their elected officials in Arizona, Florida, Ohio and several other states have also banned the extreme confinement of mother pigs.

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 12, the battle over factory farming methods in pork production has been joined in the U.S. Congress once more, in the form of the EATS Act, and we’ll fight it and any related legislation tooth and nail there for as long as it takes. The politicians seeking to help the slow adopters in their states to avoid reforms that are inevitable are involved in a pointless rearguard action and wasting everyone else’s time. When it comes to cruel practices in the pork industry, the writing is on the stall; gestation crates are cruel—period—and producers, consumers and policymakers across the country will do just fine without them. So will the pigs. 

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.