Pork farmers across the United States are worried about Proposition 12, which California voters overwhelmingly passed in 2018, and is set to go into effect on the first of next year.
The law requires farmers to keep pregnant pigs they plan on selling to California in spaces that are 24 square feet, much bigger than the industry standard of 14 to 18 square feet. Prop 12 was approved by 66% of California voters, but now pork farmers are concerned about the costs they might have to incur to get their farms in compliance with California's new rules.
"The producer is the one that is going to be out most of the costs in reconfiguring their infrastructure and reconfiguring their farms to accommodate that regulation," said Hank Combs, owner of Las Vegas Livestock, a pig farm outside of Las Vegas that sells 95% of its pigs to California.
Combs does not keep any sows on his farm, but he does keep his pigs in giant pens that would allow each of the 600 pigs kept in the pen at a time to have approximately 50 square feet. While he won't have to pay for building new pens, he anticipates he will have to pay more to the suppliers of the piglets.
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"We're going to have to find a source that is going to be compliant with that regulation, so we're going to need to go out and try to find a hog producer that meets those regulations and that's probably going to cost you more to get those pigs," Combs said.
It's not just the various elements on the pork industry supply chain that are bracing for potentially higher costs to meet California's new rules. Restaurant owners in California are also worried that they might have to pay more to buy pork, and then increase the price of menu items for their customers.
"You kinda hate to keep raising your prices because the price of goods keeps going up, but it's like, what do you do?" said Bradrick Cooper, owner of Coops West Texas BBQ in Lemon Grove. Cooper says 65% of the food he sells and the product he buys is pork-based.
California consumes 15% of the country's pork, but experts say it doesn't produce much of the pork it consumes. That means the implementation of Prop 12 could have massive implications for the pork industry nationwide. The National Pork Producers Council has estimated that 1% of pork comes from places that comply with California's standards.
It could cost pig farmers hundreds of millions of dollars to outfit their farms with the correct-sized pens, and Combs said he's heard farmers say they won't supply pigs to California.
Proponents of Prop 12 say California voters have spoken and they want pork that is raised humanely.
"To keep a mother pig in a cage so small she can never even turn around, that is against the will of California voters, it is against human decency, it is cruel treatment of animals and it's no wonder why they lost in a landslide vote and they should change their practices if they would like to supply to California," said Josh Balk from the Humane Society of the United States, one of the main proponents of Prop 12.
Combs says while he knows the new rules will be tough for some pork farmers, he respects the decision of California voters.
"Personally, I think in our operation, I don’t have a problem with it because we like to raise our hogs that way and we always have," Combs said.
Meanwhile, Cooper is hoping that Californians love pork enough to pay for it, regardless of how much it might cost.
"A lot of people love pork and I speak for those who sell it and those who eat it. It's something that we gotta have," Cooper said.