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Why California’s new pork rules could mean big changes for Minnesota hog farmers

Minnesota is the second-largest hog producing state in the nation, and a lot of that meat is sold in California, where voters recently changed the rules on what kind of pork can be sold in the state.

Hogs shown in a barn on a farm in Kenyon, Minnesota.
Hogs shown in a barn on a farm in Kenyon, Minnesota.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

If you order a pork chop, a side of bacon or tacos al pastor anywhere in the U.S., there’s a decent chance the meat in your meal was raised in Minnesota.

As a state, Minnesota is second only to Iowa in pork production. There are roughly 9.3 million hogs in Minnesota at the time of a 2020 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

Most of Minnesota’s pork is exported outside the state’s borders, and a lot of it is sold in California, the most populous state in the nation. But California’s rules about what kind of pork can be sold to its supermarkets and restaurants are scheduled to change, requiring that breeding sows be given more space than is typical in the hog industry today. For Minnesota pork producers who want to keep access to the big California market, the new rules may require expensive barn remodeling or new construction — and the need to earn a higher price for their hogs in order to pay for it.

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Prop 12

In 2018, California voters passed Proposition 12 by ballot initiative, with 63 percent of voters favoring the measure. The measure sets requirements for veal, eggs and pork sold in California.

The initiative requires pork sold in California to have been birthed of sows that have at least 24 square feet of space, with enclosures large enough for sows to turn around and extend their limbs in. Those requirements are scheduled to take effect January 1, 2022. (For hens that lay eggs, the measure required at least one square foot of floor space per bird by 2020 and cage-free operations by 2022; veal calves must have 43 square feet of space.)

Animal rights activists say the reforms are an important step in making sure animals raised for food are raised in more humane conditions.

“California’s Proposition 12 ensures that an egg-laying chicken, mother pig or baby veal calf isn’t confined in a cage where they can barely move an inch their entire life,” said  Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “The cramming of farm animals in tiny, barren cages leads to tremendous suffering, increases food safety risks, and brings the threat of diseases that could be transmitted to people. Providing animals more space means that they are at least able to walk around, extend their limbs and engage in basic natural behaviors. It’s a big step in the right direction in addressing the misery animals face in the meat and egg industries.”

Not everyone agrees that the new rules would make life better for pigs.

A report on the economic impact of Prop 12 by Barry Goodwin, a professor at North Carolina State University specializing in agricultural economics, describes the new space requirements as not backed by animal science.

“Mixing animals together, as would be common in many of the conversion scenarios, will induce stress as animals compete for dominance and feed. Animals are likely to fight, therefore causing increases in morbidity and mortality. This in turn will also negatively impact fertility and embryo survival rates,” he writes.

David Preisler, the CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board, agreed that the new rules could actually make things worse for pigs and the people who work with them.

Preisler said sows are kept in a breeding stall for about three weeks after being bred to increase the likelihood of pregnancy and lower the risk of injury.

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“With the rules that are proposed here we wouldn’t be able to use those stalls,” he said. He also said if tasks like breeding and vaccination are moved to more open space, people working with the pigs are at more risk of injury.

People who work in and study the pork industry say the measure will have economic effects for both farmers and consumers.

California consumes an estimated 15 percent of the pork produced in the U.S., per industry groups, and produces far less — an estimated 0.12 percent, Goodwin’s analysis found.

The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation are fighting Prop 12 in court, alleging it unconstitutionally “imposes burdens on interstate commerce that far outweigh any of its benefits.”

Courts have so-far ruled in favor of Prop 12 proponents, including in an affirmation by a Ninth Circuit panel of judges this week.

Because California makes up such a big share of the country’s market for pork, there is pressure on the pork industry to comply with Prop 12. Pork producers have asked California to delay the implementation of Prop 12 to give them time to come into compliance. The National Pork Producers Council has also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help in bringing farms into compliance.

Minnesota farmers plan changes

Randy Spronk says part of Spronk Brothers, his family’s Edgerton, Minnesota hog farm, is being outfitted to comply with California’s Prop 12 rules.

It was financially viable, Spronk said, because a fire took out part of the facility that’s being rebuilt to comply with the rules. Building new, as opposed to retrofitting an old barn or reducing the number of sows in a pen, is less expensive. The area that’s being rebuilt had 21 square foot pens previously, Spronk said. Goodwin’s report says the industry average for pens is between 18 and 20 square feet, and Spronk said some farms keep sows in individual pens that measure 14 square feet and would not comply with Prop 12.

The market has been volatile lately, but Spronk estimated a good farmer might need to make $130 to $140 to break even on a pig, and he estimated pigs will have to sell for an additional $8 to $20 a head to make up for the cost of building, plus the additional heating and cooling that a larger facility will require.

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Another complication for the pork industry is the supply chain: pigs go to processors to become meat, which is shipped around the country. With Prop 12 in effect, pork from California-standards compliant pigs would need to be separated from non-compliant pork and be sent to the state.

Spronk said he wouldn’t have gone forward with the new barn if he didn’t have a processor committed to buying the pigs at a price that hopefully makes it doable. He’s also hoping that retailers, and in turn, consumers, will be willing to pay higher prices.

If the rule goes into effect as intended on January 1, Goodwin’s report predicts prices for pork products will rise in California, as there won’t be enough supply that meets California’s new requirements to meet demand.

“I think it would be too early to say exactly what it would end up being,” Preisler said, adding he’s seen estimates of between 30 percent and 50 percent price increases.

Currently, Rabobank estimates less than 4 percent of the pork produced in the U.S. complies with California’s new standard.

Goodwin predicts pork prices in the rest of the country could fall in the short run, as non-compliant pork that would have gone to California is sold elsewhere. In the longer term, Goodwin’s report projects costly conversions for farmers that could prompt wide-ranging impacts on the pork industry.

If three priorities in raising food are ethics, environment and economics, Spronk said he thinks the California rules put too much emphasis on the ethical concerns at the expense of the environmental and economic concerns, given the need to build, heat and cool the new, larger facilities.

“In my mind, everybody talks about sustainability [but] we’re heading the wrong way,” under California’s new rules, he said.