ballot initiatives

Coming Soon: The Great California Bacon Crisis

What's for breakfast? In California, at year's end, maybe not this.
Photo: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Soon Californians may have to come to grips with the consequences of their system of easy-to-generate popular ballot initiatives. By that I am not referring to the slim chance that Golden State Republicans will succeed in removing Governor Gavin Newsom from office via a recall vote on September 14. A more likely effect may arrive at year’s end when full implementation of 2018’s Proposition 12 animal-welfare initiative could spark a breakfast-hour crisis as bacon and other pork products disappear from California grocery stores and eateries.

Prop 12 represented the culmination of the Humane Society’s campaign to use California’s progressive leanings and huge consumer market to force significant changes in how animals are treated in the food-supply chain. An earlier 2008 ballot initiative turned out to be too vague to have a big impact, so Prop 12 specified minimum square footage for containment facilities used in the production of meat products sold in California. After a rather strange campaign in which agriculture groups were joined in opposition by PETA (which strongly holds that only an end to meat consumption will suffice to mitigate cruelty to animals raised for food), Prop 12 passed by a robust 63-37 margin.

Initial provisions affecting beef calves and egg-laying hens took effect in 2020 without too much market disruption, and beef and egg producers are “optimistic” they will be able to comply with tighter requirements on confinement spaces due to be implemented at the end of 2021, following some defeats in federal courts for producers seeking to invalidate Prop 12 as an improper constraint on interstate commerce. But the requirements for hog breeding — much of it in Iowa — are another matter, as the Associated Press reports:

[O]nly 4% of hog operations now comply with the new rules. Unless the courts intervene or the state temporarily allows non-compliant meat to be sold in the state, California will lose almost all of its pork supply, much of which comes from Iowa, and pork producers will face higher costs to regain a key market …

At one typical hog farm in Iowa, sows are kept in open-air crates measuring 14-square-feet when they join a herd and then for a week as part of the insemination process before moving to larger, roughly 20-square foot group pens with other hogs. Both are less than the 24 square feet required by the California law to give breeding pigs enough room to turn around and to extend their limbs. Other operations keep sows in the crates nearly all of the time so also wouldn’t be in compliance.

If producers do comply (and they are asking for federal help to retrofit their farms), prices for pork products will go up nationally. If they do not, then they may lose the huge California market, at least temporarily, and pork prices will skyrocket in the undersupplied Golden State market, with shortages and outages entirely possible.

Having struck out in California-based federal courts (including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose ruling in favor of Prop 12 was indirectly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in late June), the pork producers are seeking a friendlier venue in Iowa to secure at least a temporary reprieve, partly on grounds that California has been slow to release regulations implementing the initiative. “The California Department of Food and Agriculture said that although the detailed regulations aren’t finished, the key rules about space have been known for years,” AP reports.

If the pork producers don’t win in court and aren’t bluffing, Californians may soon absorb the costs associated with their animal-welfare sentiments, and pork consumers nationally may have to come to grips with the realities on how their savory breakfast fare is obtained:

As a pork-addicted California voter who supported Prop 12, I am personally struggling with whether to stock up on a certain wholesaler’s fabulous pre-cooked bacon, or wait for more humanely produced versions of it — or rethink my meat consumption entirely as PETA and others have suggested, citing arguments ranging from the proliferation of plant-based meat substitutes to the relationship of meat consumption to climate change. In other words, I’m having the kind of debate in my head that should have occurred more widely when Prop 12 was on a crowded 2018 ballot.

Coming Soon: The Great California Bacon Crisis