STARKVILLE — Voters in California and Massachusetts have directly passed laws regulating the conditions in which pigs, hens, and calves are housed in industrial agriculture production facilities that may prove to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come for farmers, producers and consumers in the rest of the country.
At a time when inflation in food prices is already a factor in the wake of the COVID pandemic, these laws could further raise retail prices for pork, eggs and veal for consumers and dictate significant expenses for producers to make their industrial farms compliant — costs that will be passed on to the consumer.
According to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi ranks 23rd in the nation in pork production at more than 1.02 million swine annually. But the heavyweight commercial pork-producing states are Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Missouri. In terms of eggs, Mississippi produced 1.41 million eggs in 2020 at a value of $260 million.
California and Massachusetts voters expressed concern about animal welfare and production conditions in large pork, beef and egg-producing operations. Fueled by activism on these issues from the U.S. Humane Society and other groups, the voter propositions targeted gestation cages for sow hogs and battery cages for laying hens in egg production.
The cages limit movement by the animals — keeping hogs from being able to turn around and restricting hens from being able to spread their wings. Backers say the laws make food production more humane. At the same time, opponents point to the impact on product costs and that California and Massachusetts laws seek to regulate production techniques across state lines in violation of interstate commerce laws.
Putting the conflict in perspective are numbers crunched by North Carolina State University agricultural economist Barry Goodwin, who found that Californians consume about 15 percent of U.S. pork production, but in turn produce only 0.12 percent. Neither is Massachusetts a pork producer of any real significance.
The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau have filed legal challenges to the California law to the Supreme Court but as yet have not been able to block it. As the implementation and enforcement deadlines approach, both states are encountering bureaucratic snags in their own state governments.
Massachusetts lawmakers threw up their hands and adjourned with the matter unsettled there last week. California officials are scrambling as well with fresh legal challenges before them. Producers are struggling with basic questions — do they separate their product as California/Massachusetts compliant and non-compliant? What about labeling? How much of their production space should be retrofitted for compliance?
What will the actual impact on consumer pork prices be? Eight percent? 30 percent or more? What about product shortages in California and Massachusetts? Are those prospects real, or are they industry scare tactics?
What’s the genesis of the new California and Massachusetts laws? Back in 2013, Rolling Stone Magazine published the provocative story of how undercover anti-animal cruelty activists were trained and sent out to infiltrate the nation’s meat industry under the title “Animal Cruelty: The Price We Pay for Cheap Meat.”
This type of law has gained political purchase in only the most liberal states. But these laws initially failed in both California and Massachusetts. Efforts to enact such laws in the more conservative Midwestern and Southern states won’t be far behind.
My perspective on such issues is perhaps different than some. I remember my rural grandmother early on a Sunday morning wringing the neck of the chicken that she would serve us hours later for Sunday dinner.
I remember hog-killing time. The old folks would say that we were going to “use everything from that hog but the hair and the squeal.” I know where meat comes from — and it’s not McDonald’s.
The hard truth is that ethical treatment of animals eventually headed to slaughter is possible and that most in that industry subscribe to such practices not because of government regulations but from their conscience and values.
To me, over-regulation that raises the cost of meat beyond the financial means of working families is the greater sin.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected]