(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Prop 12 decision frustrating producers

May 18, 2023 | Jeff Hutton

Most Iowa pork producers like Matt Diehl of rural Osceola are conscientious about the feeding and overall well-being of their livestock. They work hard to make sure their animals are treated with care before going to market.

But Diehl and other producers in the agriculture community say the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on California’s Prop 12 will hurt them economically. That decision could trickle down to impact soybean and corn producers whose products feed hogs. And in the end, consumers’ wallets will feel the real impact as officials say pork prices at the grocery store will surely increase.

“It’s asking a lot of pork producers here,” says Diehl. “Farmers are going to have to change everything they’ve done the past 25 years. It cannot happen overnight.” 

Frustrating decision

The 5-4 decision in the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) vs. Ross case affirms a lower court’s ruling against the NPPC, which sought to invalidate the law.

Prop 12 prohibits California to sell pork from hogs whose mothers (sows) were raised in pens – in Iowa and elsewhere – that do not comply with California’s “highly prescriptive” housing standards. The law applies to all uncooked pork sold in California, whether it was produced there or outside its borders. The law, as written, means nearly all pork produced in Iowa and the rest of the United States would fail to meet California’s standards.

“The health and safety of their pigs are a top priority for Iowa pig farmers, and we are frustrated to see the Supreme Court uphold Prop 12,” said Trish Cook, a pig farmer from Winthrop and president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). “This ruling sets a bad precedent, enabling other states to regulate commerce outside their boundaries.”

This will affect customers, especially low-income consumers who rely on affordable nutritious pork to feed their families, she says.

Some small and medium-sized producers who are already dealing with high feed costs and inflation will also likely go out of business as they struggle to comply with the consequences of these standards, Cook says.

California pig farmers produce about 1% of the nation’s pork, relying on growers in Iowa which produce 28% of the nation’s pork products. California consumers, however, eat about 13% of the nation’s pork.

“Given that almost one-third of the nation’s pork comes from Iowa, you could probably guestimate that around one-third of California’s pork comes from Iowa,” says IPPA Communications Director Kevin Hall.

Diehl, who raises 2,400 hogs on his farm in Clarke County, says the changes being prescribed by California might be cost-prohibitive for many pork producers in Iowa and elsewhere. The housing standards, for example, would require farmers to pay thousands of dollars to reconfigure existing barns.

“It already costs so much money for farmers now,” he says. “To re-gate an entire hog operation, for many, could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. A lot of guys are going to say, ‘no thank you!’”

Diehl is not alone in his concerns.

“California’s burdensome regulations will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on Iowa pork producers,” says U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. “The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 12 was disappointing, and I think it ought to be corrected by Congress. I plan to support legislative measures to prevent states from instituting laws that discriminate against agriculture production. I hope we can put together a bipartisan bill and get it included in the farm bill this year.”

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig is frustrated as well.

“Having the safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply in the world is foundational to the American way of life,” he said in a statement. The “Supreme Court’s decision in National Pork Producers Council vs. Ross undermines that firm foundation.”

Though the ruling is focused on agricultural production, it will certainly creep into other industries, he noted.

“This disappointing decision sets a concerning precedent and opens the door for the largest states to dictate the laws and regulations for consumers and businesses to the rest of America,” Naig said. “This sets the stage for a state-by-state patchwork of ever-changing and costly requirements that will increase the cost of production and drive higher costs for food and other consumer products.”

Soybean impact

Diehl, who also grows 700 acres of soybeans, corn and alfalfa, says if pork production drops because of the Prop 12 ruling, that means less need for feed, including soybean meal.

Hogs consumed 18% of U.S. soybean meal, according to the United Soybean Board. The IPPA says grain usage for pork production in the United States averaged around 400 million bushels of soybeans annually from 2000-16.

On average, one hog consumes 1-2 bushels (100 pounds) of soybeans from birth to market, according to the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.

Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Director of Public Affairs Michael Dolch says ISA farmer-members are “frustrated” by the Supreme Court ruling.

“ISA is carefully monitoring the situation as the decision will have a ripple effect on future market demand for Iowa soybeans, not to mention ignite a chain reaction of other state regulations pertaining to food production that stand to burden farmers and consumers,” he says.

Pushing back

Diehl believes those who fought for changes in California law, are not really interested in animal well-being, but rather in consumers eating less pork and other animal products.

But there’s a disconnect with those who are sincere about animal care and safety, Most Iowa pork producers are protective of their livestock.

“At some point, we have to push back,” Diehl says. “Their end game is not really about the animals. It’s an effort to appease a few people.

“At the end of the day it has to work financially for farmers to continue raising pigs. We’ll end up passing on these costs to the consumer.”