The Supreme Court on Thursday backed a California animal cruelty law that requires more space for breeding pigs, a ruling the pork industry says will lead to higher costs nationwide for pork chops and bacon.
“While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in an opinion for the court.
Industry groups have said the law would mean expensive, industry-wide changes even though a majority of the farms where pigs are raised are not in California, the nation’s most populous state, but instead in the Midwest and North Carolina.
A majority of the high court agreed that lower courts had correctly dismissed pork producers’ challenge to the law. Both liberal and conservative justices were a part of the majority, though they were not united in their reasoning.
Gorsuch said the pork producers challenging the law were asking the justices to “fashion two new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders.” The justices declined.
Four justices would have sent the case back to continue in lower courts. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined in that view by fellow conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh and liberal Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson.
During arguments in the case in October, liberal and conservative justices underscored the potential reach of the case. Some worried whether greenlighting the animal cruelty law would give state legislators a license to pass laws targeting practices they disapprove of, such as a law that says a product cannot be sold in the state if workers who made it are not vaccinated or are not in the country legally. They also worried about the reverse: How many state laws would be called into question if California’s law were not permitted?
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement that the ruling “affirms states’ important role in regulating goods sold within their borders,” and that it “means that California can continue to have in place humane and commonsense standards, instead of the extreme confinement pushed by some pork producers.”
The case before the court involved California’s Proposition 12, which voters passed in 2018. It said that pork sold in the state needs to come from pigs whose mothers were raised with at least 24 square feet of space, with the ability to lie down and turn around. That rules out confined “gestation crates,” metal enclosures that are common in the pork industry.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council sued. They said that while Californians consume 13% of the pork eaten in the United States, nearly 100% of it comes from hogs raised outside the state, including in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina. The vast majority of sows, meanwhile, are not raised under conditions that would meet Proposition 12’s standards.
Scott Hays, the president of the National Pork Producers Council, said in a statement following the ruling that the group was “very disappointed” with the court’s opinion. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation,” he wrote.
The Biden administration had urged the justices to side with pork producers, telling the court in written filings that Proposition 12 would be a “wholesale change in how pork is raised and marketed in this country” and that it has “thrown a giant wrench” into the nation’s pork market.
Pork producers argued that 72% of farmers use individual pens for sows that do not allow them to turn around and that even farmers who house sows in larger group pens do not provide the space California would require.
They also say that the way the pork market works, with cuts of meat from various producers being combined before sale, it is likely all pork would have to meet California standards, regardless of where it is sold. Complying with Proposition 12 could cost the industry $290 million to $350 million, they said.
Animals rights groups cheered the decision.
“We’re delighted that the Supreme Court has upheld California Proposition 12 — the nation’s strongest farm animal welfare law — and made clear that preventing animal cruelty and protecting public health are core functions of our state governments,” the president of the Humane Society of the United States, Kitty Block, wrote in a statement. The organization had backed Proposition 12 and was a participant in the case.