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Pork prices could soon rise in California as a new law takes effect. Will bacon

A recent state initiative designed to improve the conditions of mother pigs has led some in the pork industry to worry about possible increases in bacon and pork prices, which could start to affect California markets in the coming months.

A 2018 ballot initiative set minimum cage sizes for products of breeding pigs, veal calves and egg-laying hens sold within the state. Originally set to go into effect July 1 of this year, Proposition 12 requires pork sold in the state to be from farmers providing a minimum of 24 square feet for each pig.

That initiative drew a legal challenge from a coalition of business leaders, grocers and pork producers who were concerned about a rocky implementation, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Prop 12 this May.

Amid further disputes, the California Department of Food and Agriculture agreed to give producers a grace period: They can still sell the pork they’ve made earlier this year to grocers and restaurants until the end of this year, so the law won’t fully be in effect until January 2024.

Critics like the National Pork Producer Council, a trade association and lead plaintiff in the case that made it to the Supreme Court, have argued that the changes will require costly overhauling and improvements to their farms. Those costs will then, they say, be passed onto consumers.

Some analysts agree with that, but say the regulations are localized to California and won’t have a far-reaching effect on prices outside California markets next year. Significant pork production is not widespread in California; the state’s bacon comes from farmers largely in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

“It will be a substantial cost to the farms, that’s a fact, but only to those farms that are supplying the pork to California,” said Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, likening the situation to organic milk or beef. “You can buy it now. Does that mean that those people who don’t buy organic beef… about 99% of them, pay a whole lot more?”

How far could the price increases go?

Sumner said he expects price increases to occur in California close to January, around 5% to 8% in retail prices, or $3 per baby pig. The state already consumes about 15% of the nation’s pork, but Sumner said California actually consumes only about 8% of the nation’s pork that comes from breeding pigs. Almost one-third of mother pigs sold in North America are already raised crate-free, he added.

But some industry leaders said they are already seeing price increases, charging that the extent of the problem is much deeper. Further complicating the matter is that the grace period largely applies to pork products that can be effectively frozen, like bacon.

“There are some pork products that retailers purchase ahead of time, but once they’re done with that supply, there’s going to be a shortage and there’s going to be a price increase,” said Ron Fong, president and CEO of the California Grocers Association, which was part of the legal challenge mounted by critics of the proposition’s implementation. “We’re already seeing that now.”

Fong said he hasn’t conducted an official survey among grocers, but has seen prices of pork ribs and porkchops start to increase. He points to forecasts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture signaling that prices will undergo a modest rise. One USDA report from late July estimated that nationwide prices would increase by about 11% from the last quarter of this year to the first quarter of 2024.

“If you’re a farmer, you have to retrofit your operations …that takes time and money. However long that takes, then you got to grow pigs, which is, depending on who you talk to, a six to nine month gestation period,” he said. “So, you’re talking well in the next year before we have compliance for products.”

Who is helping produce California’s pork?

There’s a complex process of transportation that has to align with each state’s own standards, Sumner said, because “you don’t want to mix up something.” Farmers avoid spending time and money raising pork under regulations that won’t be relevant in different states, and it’s a hassle when pork is sent to the wrong state.

But there are small pockets of production in California.

At UC Davis’ Swine Teaching and Research Center, students and researchers participate in a “farrow to finish” operation with aspects of production under one roof, facility manager Shelby Sopocy said in an email. Though they mainly focus on academic research, she said they do market some animals for meat and food products.

Unlike other farms, the center has largely sidestepped any implementation costs the proposition could have brought on. “Someone had the foresight to design the facility with pen gestation-style housing. So we’ve had the privilege of being Prop 12 compliant without any costly remodels,” she said.

Aaron Prinz, manager of the UC Davis Swine Center and secretary-treasurer of the California Pork Producers Association, looks over an open pen with several pigs – which have access to individual, self-locking stalls – in the breeding and gestation barn at the swine center Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. A 2018 ballot initiative, Proposition 12, set space requirements for pregnant sows, veal calves and egg-laying hens, and is scheduled to take effect in 2022 for pigs. Xavier Mascareñas/xmascarenas@sacbee.com

Aaron Prinz, manager of the UC Davis Swine Center and secretary-treasurer of the California Pork Producers Association, looks over an open pen with several pigs – which have access to individual, self-locking stalls – in the breeding and gestation barn at the swine center Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. A 2018 ballot initiative, Proposition 12, set space requirements for pregnant sows, veal calves and egg-laying hens, and is scheduled to take effect in 2022 for pigs. Xavier Mascareñas/[email protected]

Sumner pushes back on those who worry all farmers will be forced to make significant adjustments while fronting the costs. Those farmers who do not want to comply don’t need to sell to California, he argues, adding that the issue has become “so politicized.”

Sopocy attributes the concern farming advocates have over the proposition to the politics.

“Individuals that are not boots on the ground every day and taking care of pigs are the ones making decisions as well as painting a picture that what pig farmers are doing is inertly bad,” she said. Many farms are family-owned, she added, putting them in a difficult spot when it comes to housing animals properly.

“It’s a tough place to be when the way animals are housed can be used as a husbandry tool and now that’s being taken away.” Sopocy said. “Pig farming is not just a job, it’s a passion and way of life for all those in the industry.”