By Leah Douglas
(Reuters) – Some big U.S. pork producers that have spent money to comply with a California law requiring more living space for certain farm animals are lukewarm about legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress that would overturn the state law.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the pork industry trade group, supports the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Roger Marshall and Representative Ashley Hinson that would curb the ability of states to regulate agricultural products sold within their borders.
The lawmakers have said their aim in part is to overturn California’s Proposition 12, which bars sales in the state of pork, veal, and eggs from animals whose housing conditions fail to meet certain standards.
But Clemens Food Group, the No. 5 pork processor in the country, said it does not support the EATS Act. Other big producers like Hormel, Smithfield and Tyson have said publicly that they intend to comply with the California law when it takes effect Jan. 1.
The NPPC has fought Proposition 12 since it passed by ballot initiative in 2018. In May, the lobby group lost a case against the law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The group spent $780,000 between April and the end of June lobbying on issues including the EATS Act, according to public filings.
Animal welfare groups say Proposition 12 is necessary because some sows and hens are housed in cages so small they cannot turn around.
The NPPC’s CEO Bryan Humphreys told Reuters in an email that the law would not improve animal welfare, would raise costs for hog producers, and could lead to more “ideological” state restrictions.
Some pork and egg companies, though, have already invested in bringing a segment of their production into compliance with Proposition 12.
Clemens, a member of the NPPC, has invested capital and time upgrading facilities and training its farmers to comply with the law, said COO Chris Carey.
“We ultimately don’t believe the EATS Act is aligned with progress in animal welfare,” Carey said.
Roughly a third of the egg industry, too, is already in compliance, said Brian Moscogiuri, global trade strategist at egg supplier Eggs Unlimited.
Hormel Foods, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods did not respond to questions about the EATS Act.
If the EATS Act passes, food companies could lose the ability to differentiate their product in the marketplace and court a higher price, said Galina Hale, an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
The bill could also void over a thousand state and local public health and safety regulations because it is broadly written, according to a report by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Program.
“Every aspect of this is going to be challenged by one side or another,” said Chris Green, the program’s executive director.
If Proposition 12 holds, more hog farming could look like Randy Hutton, Jr.,’s operation in Chestertown, Maryland, a rural town on the state’s Eastern Shore.
Hutton Jr. raises hogs for Niman Ranch, a subsidiary of meat company Purdue Farms that advertises its high animal welfare standards. His pregnant sows are kept in a fenced pasture, rather than the gestation crates common in confinement hog farming, and have at least 35 square feet each to move around, he told Reuters during a recent visit.
Niman Ranch opposes the EATS Act. All of its 750 ranchers are in compliance with Proposition 12, said vice president of communications Kerri McClimen.
Hutton Jr. said he was drawn to raising sows on pasture because it was less expensive than building a confinement barn, which can cost upward of $700,000.
“We were looking for more diversification,” he said. “This was affordable.”
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by David Gregorio)