October 11, 2022
US pork sector challenges California animal welfare law at US Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court will hear arguments in a US pork sector case that challenges the constitutionality of a California animal welfare law, which could limit the ability of states to regulate a variety of matters within their own borders, Reuters reported.
The California ballot initiative that voters approved in 2018 prohibiting the sale of pork, veal, and eggs from animals whose confinement did not meet minimum space requirements is being challenged by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation in an appeal.
The swine farming industry has defended the size of the cages used there as both humane and essential for the welfare of the animals. According to animal rights organisations, some pork producers lock mother swine in cages so small that they are unable to turn around for the majority of their lives.
The business associations claim that Proposition 12's requirement that out-of-state producers comply or face a California sales ban violates the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, which grants Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. The "dormant" Commerce Clause, a legal theory, prohibits states from passing legislation that discriminates against commerce with other states.
The pork producers claimed in a court document that Proposition 12 goes against this principle because it would raise prices for swine farmers, almost all of whom are located outside of California. Even though it has the largest population in the country and is a significant market, California only produces 0.1% of the country's pork.
Michael Formica, chief legal strategist for the pork producers, said this is an example of an unconstitutional law.
Contrary to what the law's supporters claim, California has the authority to set standards for goods sold to its citizens, regardless of where they were made.
Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded the effort to pass Proposition 12 and is a party to the lawsuit, said there is a long history of state laws that have to do with protecting public health, food safety, and animal welfare, adding that producers have a choice if they want to sell goods that meet that standard within the state's borders.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a district court's decision to dismiss the case for lack of a Commerce Clause violation.
In a Supreme Court brief, the administration of US President Joe Biden sided with the pork industry, arguing that states cannot outlaw goods that pose no threat to public health or safety based on philosophical objections.
Some legal experts believe that a ruling in favour of the pork industry by the Supreme Court, which currently has a 6-3 conservative majority, would have significant ramifications for how the Commerce Clause is interpreted.
Attorney Brian Frazelle of the liberal advocacy group Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed a brief in the case on behalf of law professors, said the industry is asking for a dramatic expansion of the doctrine in a way that would call into question all kinds of state laws.
The law had been endorsed by 16 liberal US senators, including both from California. In their opinion, a decision supporting the industry's Commerce Clause argument "could permit large, multi-state corporations to evade many state laws that focus on harms to their constituents, including those addressing wildlife trafficking, climate change, renewable energy, stolen property trafficking, and labour abuses," they wrote.
In a brief, a coalition of 20 mostly Republican-run states, led by Indiana, argued that upholding Proposition 12 would compromise state sovereignty. Another group of 14 states, most of which are governed by Democrats, as well as the District of Columbia, led by Illinois, claimed that overturning it would impair state legislative power.
Nandan Joshi, an attorney with the consumer protection organisation Public Citizen, which submitted a brief in support of California, said a decision in favour of pork producers could spur additional industry challenges to state regulations.
Many food and restaurant businesses have already agreed to phase out the confinement of swine in small cages and to purchase or produce cage-free eggs in response to pressure from consumer and animal welfare organisations.
Approximately 63% of California voters supported Proposition 12, which set the minimum space needed for breeding swine, or sows, at 24 square feet (2.2 square meters). The current industry standard, according to a 2021 study by Dutch banking and financial services provider Rabobank, is between 14 and 20 square feet (1.3 to 1.9 square metres).
The measure also increased the amount of space needed to house hens that lay eggs and veal calves.
Leading American pork producer Smithfield Foods, which is owned by the Chinese firm WH Group Ltd, declared last year that it would abide by the law. The second-largest producer of pork in the United States, Seaboard Foods, based in Kansas state, announced this year that it was converting some of its output to comply.