Federal judge rejects Iowa pork industry’s attempt to crush California law banning pork produced ‘in a cruel manner’

A pig enjoys enough space to stretch in a small-scale sustainable farm in northern California. While California has some of the strictest anti-cruelty laws for the pork industry, Iowa has the least. — Lily Keller/Flickr

On Monday, a federal judge in Cedar Rapids dismissed a lawsuit from Iowa pork producers seeking to overturn a law in California that prohibits the sale of “the meat of a breeding pig, or the immediate offspring of a breeding pig, who was confined ‘in a cruel manner.’”

Proposition 12, passed by California voters in 2018, defines “a cruel manner,” as “confining a breeding pig after December 31, 2021, if that breeding pig is in a space less than twenty-four (24) square feet of usable floorspace per pig.” That standard is based on how much space is needed for a hog to be able to stand up and turn around in its pen.

California hog farmers have been legally required to provide that much room for their hogs since 2015. Prop 12 is aimed at the sale of meat in the state, rather than its production. It “prohibit[s] the sale of any whole pork meat [in California] where the business owner or operator knows or should know” the hogs were held in pens with less than 24 square feet of usable space.

Iowa is the country’s largest producer of pork, in large part because it puts fewer regulations on the operations of industrial-scale hog farms known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) than any other state. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa had 23.9 million pigs in March, by far the most of any state. Its nearest competitor was Minnesota with 9 million.

Iowa pork producers faced a choice after Prop 12 was passed three years ago of either giving hogs more room or losing access to the markets in the most populous and richest state in the union. Unwilling to do the former, Iowa pork producers sued to try to overturn the law before it takes effect in order to prevent the latter.

According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA), providing hogs with enough room to turn around in the pens would devastate its members’ businesses. In a court filing, IPPA said meeting the Prop 12 standard would add $15 to $23 to the price of raising each animal from piglet to slaughter-house-ready hog. In its filing with the federal court in Cedar Rapids, IPAA describes itself as a “grassroots organization” that represents approximately 70 county-level hog producers in Iowa.

IPPA, along with some other Iowa pork producers, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County in May alleging Prop 12 was an unconstitutional violation of the rights of Iowa pork producers. On June 18, that lawsuit was moved to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, located in Cedar Rapids.

By then, a similar lawsuit filed in California by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) had already failed. The door permanently shut on that lawsuit on June 28, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear NAMI’s appeal. The state of Iowa had filed a brief with the Supreme Court, supporting NAMI’s request that it take the case.

Both the NAMI and IPPA cases rest on the argument that California is illegally attempting to regulate businesses in other states. The state of California maintains that since Prop 12 only applies to businesses operating in the state, it has the right to regulate those businesses. If meat from animals raised in what law defines as a cruel manner is sold in the state, it is the business in California selling the meat — which already has to abide by the state’s other regulations regarding the sale of foodstuffs — that faces a fine, not the out-of-state industrial hog farm that raised the animals.

In the NAMI case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a federal district court that the state of California’s power to regulate businesses in the state also applied to Prop 12. In the IPPA case, Judge C.J. Williams ruled that an Iowa federal court is not the proper place to bring a lawsuit seeking to overturn Prop 12.

Because Prop 12 was “not uniquely or expressly aimed at Iowa” and was not passed “with the knowledge the brunt of the harm would be felt in Iowa,” Williams found the court could not assert jurisdiction in the case and dismissed it.

The attempts to invalidate Prop 12 aren’t the first efforts by Iowa’s major agricultural interests to attempt to invalidate a California law aimed to improving the conditions of animals in big farming operation.

Just as it leads the nation in the number of hogs in CAFOs, Iowa also leads in the nation in egg production with approximately 56 million laying hens, mostly in industrial-style farms. In 2008, California passed a law that, like Prop 12, prohibited the sale of eggs from hens kept in cages that are too small for hen to stand and turn around.

Iowa’s industrial-scale egg producers said having to allow chickens to have enough room to turn around would devastate their businesses. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller joined a federal lawsuit by attorneys general of 12 other small-cage-friendly states seeking to overturn California’s law. They lost.

In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an request from Miller and the others to hear an appeal of the case.

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