A pig looks out of its pen at a hog feeding operation near Tribune, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)
Earlier this year, Oregon Democrats pushed through state legislation that allows local governments to require setbacks between neighbors and factory farming operations. The law prohibits farms from drawing unlimited amounts of free groundwater and requires farmers to apply for a permit before applying manure to their fields.
It’s the kind of state regulation at risk if farm-state Republicans succeed in passing the EATS Act, which stands for Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression, when Congress renews the federal farm bill.
The EATS Act targets state-specific regulations on livestock production — particularly California’s Proposition 12, which requires farms to meet specific standards providing animals freedom of movement, cage-free design and minimum floor space. Crucially, California’s voter initiative also bars retailers from selling meats raised in other states that don’t meet California’s standards — viewed as a major imposition by agriculture interests across the country. After court delays, the Proposition 12 rules will be fully implemented as of Jan. 1, 2024.
The EATS Act would likely spell the end to California’s Proposition 12 rules. But its broad language also would allow companies and individuals to challenge a range of laws regulating agriculture. An analysis by Harvard researchers estimates the provision could void more than 1,000 state and local laws and regulations concerning public health and safety.
“I think it’s galloping in the wrong direction and exacerbates the really destructive imbalance between corporate power and local power,” said Oregon Democratic state Sen. Jeff Golden, who sponsored the farm measure in his state.
“The environments, culture and values across the country vary dramatically,” Golden said. “The relative value different communities put on the environment and so-called free enterprise vary dramatically. So, a rigid, standard regulatory structure makes no sense to me.”
At least 15 states have passed laws regulating animal confinement, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Many of those laws target the care of calves used for veal, hens for eggs and pigs for pork.
I don’t think the answer is that if you can’t get a national standard, the standard has to be zero. And that’s basically what the EATS Act is saying.
– Chris Green, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund
Chris Green, executive director of the fund, said farmers would ideally be subject to national standards, but the nation is simply too divided. Green researched the EATS Act in his previous role directing the animal law and policy program at Harvard University. He said it would create a race to the bottom by sanctioning industry challenges to state standards they don’t like.
“I don’t think the answer is that if you can’t get a national standard, the standard has to be zero,” he said. “And that’s basically what the EATS Act is saying.”
But backers of the EATS Act say farmers in their states shouldn’t be beholden to the rules of lawmakers or voters in other states. Congress is still debating its reauthorization of the five-year farm bill, which expires Sept. 30. The legislation, expected to cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years, funds crop, conservation and nutrition programs.
U.S. Sen Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, said American farmers already face protectionist policies from other countries that limit access to new markets.
“The last thing we need is a big state like California imposing its will on ag-heavy states like Kansas with regulations that will also restrict our ability to trade among the states,” Marshall said in a news release introducing the EATS Act. “If California wants to regulate agriculture in its own state, that’s fine, but California’s rules should not apply to Kansas, whose legislatures never approved of these regulations.”
Marshall’s office did not respond to a request for comment. South Dakota’s Rep. Dusty Johnson and Sen. John Thune, both Republicans, are among the cosponsors of the House and Senate version of the EATS Act, respectively.
The National Pork Producers Council, an industry group, did not agree to an interview for this story. But the association provided a two-page memo outlining its support for the EATS Act. The organization says California’s livestock rules are not based on science, were crafted by those with “a limited understanding of pork production,” and could cause market volatility and rising prices.
Animal advocates, small farmers and environmentalists view the EATS Act as a desperate attempt by the pork industry to override the will of voters and legislators across the country — and to reverse a recent loss at the U.S. Supreme Court. In May, the court in a 5-4 decision rejected a challenge from the National Pork Producers Council and upheld California’s rules.
Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said businesses selling across state lines frequently face various state laws and regulations. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,” he wrote.
The implications of the four-page EATS Act go well beyond meat production, threatening environmental protections and state laws on zoonotic diseases and invasive species, according to Patty Lovera, policy adviser for the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, a coalition of progressive groups fighting factory farming.
Lovera said the bill would clear the way for incessant attacks on state and local regulations. “It’s not a coincidence that there’s a maneuver being attempted to stick it on a must-pass bill, because it is so controversial,” she said.
‘Out of a horror film’
Trish Cook and her husband raise more than 30,000 pigs per year on their Iowa farm. Like most other large-scale farmers, she keeps sows in small confinements where staff can closely monitor their food intake and prevent them from fighting.
Cook, who is president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said it would cost her $2 million to $3 million to reconfigure animal housing and comply with California’s livestock rules. Iowa, the nation’s largest pig producer, grows about a third of the nation’s pork supply.
“What the state ballot initiatives are doing is creating a patchwork of rules state by state that make it really challenging as someone who’s trying to raise a delicious, nutritious product to be fed to people across the country and across the world,” she said.
Lee Schulz, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, said laws like California’s create an unfunded mandate: Producers who want to meet specific state standards must invest mightily but can’t expect higher prices in return. And such rules inject uncertainty into an already shaky pork marketplace, which is facing higher input costs but lower pork prices.
“You’re adding higher costs to an industry that was already contracting,” Schulz said. He added that while consumers may say they want crate-free pork, they’re not necessarily willing to pay more for it.
Still, big producers including Hormel, Smithfield and Tyson have publicly said they intend to comply with the California law, Reuters reported.
What the state ballot initiatives are doing is creating a patchwork of rules state by state that make it really challenging as someone who’s trying to raise a delicious, nutritious product to be fed to people across the country and across the world.
– Trish Cook, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association
Animal welfare advocates note that animals raised indoors can display unnatural behaviors and can live their whole lives without seeing blue skies.
Advocates have focused on sow farms, where female pigs are bred. Mother pigs can spend their entire pregnancy inside gestation crates, cages so small the pig can’t even turn around. After giving birth, many are confined in farrowing crates, similar cages that allow the piglets to nurse but don’t allow the sow to move around.
“The way the industry raises pigs in particular and how they treat mother sows is absolutely horrible,” said Alex Cragun, director of government affairs at Mercy For Animals, a nonprofit fighting animal cruelty in farming. “It’s atrocious. It’s something out of a horror film.”
The organization last month released a report on its undercover investigation at a Nebraska pork farm. Mercy For Animals said it witnessed pigs lying in their own waste, sick pigs that went untreated, sows giving birth directly into piles of feces and animal feed infested with maggots.
While he said he would like consumers to leave pork off their plates altogether, Cragun said efforts like Proposition 12 in California go a long way in improving conditions for livestock.
“This is their full existence. Something like the ability to turn around or the ability to lay down is a small piece of some sense of control. It doesn’t completely change all these things, but it is one component, and it is an absolutely critical step towards a more just and stable food system.”
Niman Ranch is a network of more than 700 family farmers and ranchers committed to sustainable and humane production of cattle and pork. Chris Oliviero, the general manager of Niman Ranch, said other producers have sacrificed humane treatment in their yearslong quest to realize efficiency.
“If it’s such a humane system, I would argue that the industry would be front and center showcasing every single day what this system looks like,” Oliviero said. But “there’s nobody out there who is putting cameras in these operations saying, ‘Look at how great this is’ for the animals that are in their care.”
For nearly 20 years, Pennsylvania-based Clemens Food Group has been moving away from gestation crates to give pigs more space. That’s made it much easier for the company to comply with new state standards. But company president Brad Clemens said the move was “a values-based decision.” When given the choice, he said, sows choose open space over confinement.
“Knowing that the technology is out there to give the sows space, why wouldn’t we do that?” he said.
The family-owned company is the nation’s fifth-largest pork processor. Clemens is vocally opposed to the EATS Act — or any legislation like it. Aside from treating animals better, Clemens said, there’s a business case for change: Customers care more than ever about the sourcing, impact and treatment of their food.
“We’ve had more customer inquiries on sow housing in the last five years than we did the last 50 years before that. Customers are smarter than they’ve ever been,” he said. “They desire more transparency than they ever did before. These are informed buyers who care about how animals are kept and will make buying decisions based on how animals are kept.”
— South Dakota Searchlight’s staff contributed to this report.
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