The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bringing home the bacon will soon cost more in California. For good reason, animal advocates say.

Jeannie Kim's bacon-and-eggs breakfast at her restaurant in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Breakfast lovers in California might soon be reaching further into their pockets to buy bacon and eggs. Animal rights groups say the reason behind the price bump is well worth it.

A California ballot initiative that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022, will drive up the prices of eggs, pork and veal in the state, experts say. The measure, which called for more humane treatment of animals, passed with nearly 63 percent of the vote in 2018.

Animal rights activists say the law will protect farm animals against cruel living conditions. But meat farmers say the new specifications it puts in place are ill-reasoned and out of step with the kind of care animals require.

The rules will expand the caging requirements for sows, calves raised for veal and egg-laying chickens. For sows, the law stipulates they must have at least 24 square feet of room in their pens, as opposed to the current 20 feet. The law not only requires California farmers to abide by the new rules, it also prevents in-state sale of all meat and poultry products that do not follow them.

Just 4 percent of pork producers could currently sell to California under the new stipulations, the Associated Press reported.

The push to upsize cages for animals has been swelling for decades, said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, which drafted the ballot initiative. He called California’s law “the strongest law for farm animals in the world,” saying no locale has a broader measure protecting farm animals, though more than a dozen states offer animal protections that cover similar concerns.

But members of the meat industry say the new rules are arbitrary and ignore some of the realities of raising sows, such as a need to isolate them when they are in heat to avoid injury to other animals. And as prices soar, the producers worry that consumer interest in pork will plummet.

Analysis shows the new law will increase the prices of eggs and pork in California, but at least part of that cost hike may have been coming anyway.

The cost of food per Californian per year will increase by about $50 after the changes go into effect, a study by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) found, based on data that the typical U.S. consumer consumes about 21 dozen eggs and 40 pounds of pork meat annually.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office of California said in 2018 that some of these price increases “would have occurred anyway in future years” as some companies move toward products such as cage-free eggs.

Balk said hens, sows and calves often live their lives crammed into too-small cages.

“They’re forced to live, in essence, in their own coffin,” he said. “The industry is really on an island, trying to defend the indefensible.”

The law, which has faced several legal challenges from the meat industry, also calls for other kinds of enrichment, such as perches for hens.

Barry Goodwin, an economist at North Carolina State University, argued in an analysis for the National Pork Producers Council that these new rules will decrease farm productivity and unduly affect small hog farms, leading to consolidation in the industry as larger operations crowd them out.

The CDFA study found that small California egg and pork producers will face lower compliance costs than larger operations because they are “likely to have space that is compliant or almost compliant.” Initial costs are estimated at $5,000 and ongoing costs at $500 for small pork and egg producers.

The department predicted that overall consumption of eggs, pork and veal will decrease in California once the rules go into effect.

Iowa hog farmer Dwight Mogler said implementing California’s new standards on his farm would be regressive — and there’s no guarantee there would be a return on the investment.

“Even if it was economically feasible for us to make changes, we would be going backwards on our animal welfare standards, and that violates our core values,” he said.

Mogler said that he keeps sows isolated for longer than the new law allows but that he does it to protect the group as a whole. Female pigs are aggressive toward one another when they are in heat, he said, so it’s safer to separate them.

Michael Formica, general counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, said the ballot initiative was drafted by people who don’t understand the realities of raising animals or feeding people and just want Americans to stop eating meat.

“The Humane Society of United States’ goal is the elimination of meat on the table,” he said.

The North American Meat Institute brought the law before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled it was constitutional. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, upholding the ruling.

Formica said the legal battle over the new law, which he argued violates the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause, is not over.

Balk said the initiative passed with overwhelming support because voters want to address cruelty toward animals.

“We didn’t have to persuade people of anything,” he said. “The voters already agreed animals shouldn’t be treated like this, and they just needed an opportunity to put our morality of being opposed to cruelty to animals into the books.”

Read more:

Eating too many eggs can still be risky, but most people don’t have to give them up entirely, experts say

Deep in the forest, Germany fights another virus. This one hits pigs.

Even in the face of surging grocery prices, retail beef and pork prices cause sticker shock