California wants pigs to have more living space, and that could make pork a lot more expensive for the residents of the state — and even bring the threat of a shortage.
Oral arguments took place in a California court this week over a new regulation that will make it mandatory starting next year for pork sold in the state to come from breeding pigs that have at least 24 square feet of living space.
California residents eat about 15% of the pork consumed in the U.S. But most of that meat comes from producers in the Midwest and Southeast. And right now, only about 4% of U.S. breeding pigs, known as sows, live in that much space, according to Christine McCracken, a senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank.
The bottom line is that hog producers in places like Iowa will either have to change how they farm, or miss out on selling meat to a major market. The National Pork Producers Council is suing over the law, with a ruling expected in mid-summer.
“If you’re flush with cash, you can build a new facility,” said Michael Formica, general counsel of the NPPC. “For everyone else, they are going to lose access to this market.”
If not enough farmers change their facilities, the planned law could create a pork deficit for California, according to Rabobank’s McCracken.
Unless California delays or makes adjustments to the regulation, “they’re going to see a significant disruption in their local pork markets,” McCracken said by phone.
At the same time, if loads of hog producers start building new facilities to comply with the law, those expenses could get passed on to all U.S. consumers through meat inflation.
The North American Meat Institute has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a review, stating it would “hurt the nation’s food value chain by significantly increasing costs for producers and consumers.”
Proponents of the regulation say industry opposition is “out of touch.”
The new rule “seems very basic: Allowing the animals enough room to turn around, to give pigs a bit of space,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “Ordinary Americans view this practice as animal cruelty. It’s simply not sustainable.”
The hog industry has started moving away from constricting cages known as gestation crates that prevent sows from being able to turn around. But most animals still are in individual stalls with 13 square feet of space, or in group pens with about 16 feet per animal, according to Formica of the NPPC.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty over the regulation, because California hasn’t issued its final guidelines yet.
“The uncertainty has put all U.S. pork producers in a challenging position,” said Jen Sorenson, president of the NPPC.