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Supreme Court Delivers a Defeat to Pork Industry

Justices reject challenge to animal cruelty law in California that has effects beyond the state
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 12, 2022 9:49 AM CDT
Updated May 11, 2023 1:52 PM CDT
The Supreme Court Weighs a Meaty Topic Involving Pigs
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/songqiuju)
UPDATE May 11, 2023 1:52 PM CDT

The Supreme Court has handed the pork industry a defeat, rejecting a challenge brought against an animal cruelty law in California. Justices decided that lower courts were correct in dismissing the challenge to the law, which requires more space for breeding pigs, reports the AP. The 2018 law stipulates that any pork sold in the state must come from pig producers who adhere to the new rules, even though the vast majority of pork consumed in California comes from other states. The industry says that could have wide-reaching effects on production and prices beyond California.

Oct 12, 2022 9:49 AM CDT

When it comes to pork production, California doesn't have much to speak of. It imports more than 99% of the pork it consumes, a figure NPR reports that translates into 13% of the pork produced in the US. On Tuesday, an animal-cruelty law surrounding that pork made its way in front of the Supreme Court. As the New York Times explains, the law requires that the pork sold in the state must have been born to a sow that lived in at least 24 square feet of space—enough to turn around in. California's Proposition 12, which NBC News reports overwhelmingly passed in 2018 with 63% of the vote but hasn't yet gone into effect, effectively bars "gestation crates," the metal enclosures that are used throughout the pork industry.

If California wants to demand that of pigs born within its borders, no problem. But the question in front of the court is whether the law's regulatory impact on other states violates the US Constitution's Dormant Commerce Clause, which Bloomberg reports "prohibits laws that discriminate against out-of-state commerce." The Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation were the ones to sue, noting most sows aren't kept in conditions that sync with Proposition 12's requirements (this August 2021 article put the figure at 4%). They estimate it could cost the industry as much as $350 million, and they have the Biden administration on their side.

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Written filings submitted by the administration argue the proposition has "thrown a giant wrench into the workings of the interstate market in pork," per the AP. Lower courts have thus far sided with California. NPR reports 70 minutes had been scheduled for oral arguments; things lasted nearly an hour longer than that. The AP shares some of the standout questions the justices had:

  • Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson summed up the issue: "To what extent does California get to control what Iowa does with respect to the housing of its pork?" She asked why California couldn't do something less onerous, such as "segregating Iowa's pork when it comes in, putting a big label over it that says 'This is immorally produced.'"
  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh: "So what about a law that says you can't sell fruit in our state if it's produced—handled by people who are not in the country legally? Is that state law permissible?"
  • Justice Elena Kagan: "I understand New York has a law that says that if you want to import firewood into the state, you have to have used a certain kind of pesticide to make sure that various pests don't come in with the firewood. Would that be forbidden?"
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett: Could California pass a law barring pork from companies that "don't require all their employees to be vaccinated or from companies that don't fund gender-affirming surgery?"
(More pork stories.)

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