The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently affirmed that the measures in Proposition 12 (in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross) do not violate the “Dormant Commerce Clause” because the complaining parties did not prove how the law discriminates against out-of-state producers when it equally applied to those situated in California. The voters of California passed Proposition 12 in 2018, amended Chapter 10, Article 3 of the California Code of Regulations, imposing more stringent standards for the breeding of pigs (Section 1322.1(a). All because the plaintiffs made faulty legal arguments does not mean the law is economically sound.
Most animal cruelty laws focus on the emotions of voters; people deplore animal mistreatment. The “humane pork law” might elicit emotional responses, but there numerous drawbacks. Other states may consider passing similar measures and suffer from the adverse downstream consequences. These regulations artificially restricting the meat supply raise prices but cannot guarantee animal welfare. The free market, rather than top-down laws, can better accommodate the preferences of consumers who demand ethical meat.
Vote with Your Wallet, Not the Ballot Box!
One of the best mechanisms for ensuring food safety and humane treatment of livestock would be feedback in sales. If firms continue to sell large quantities of pork raised in inhumane conditions, producers can assume that consumers are not worried by the breeding conditions of pigs. Among California voters and pork consumers, there is a disconnect between their purchasing decisions and the pork products available. If these individuals were concerned about pigs, they would stop buying pork products. The use of government fiat to remedy this issue ignores that producers respond to what customers buy. If pork sales plummet, prudent companies will work to alleviate the concerns regarding the sanitation and safety of commercial slaughterhouses and breeding facilities. In contrast, if consumers remain lackadaisical about the issue and continue to buy bacon from “unethical” processing facilities, what incentive do procedures have to change their ways?
Voters/consumers relying on government remedies to make the food supply safer and more ethical is an example of moral hazard. Moral hazard is the phenomenon where “..people tend to take more risks when they do not bear the full potential negative consequence.. “. When voters defer the issue to the state legislature, this is only passing the buck. If producers took a hit on their bottom line, being profit-oriented, they would respond by improving the living conditions for their livestock. It is easier to continue to purchase pork chops every week and wait for the referendum; versus organizing a boycott or voicing your concerns in a letter to pork producers expressing your concerns. Animal welfare proponents can even adopt a vegan lifestyle if they believe pork slaughter practices are unsafe and immoral. Shoppers can also purchase substitute goods (the demand for pork is relatively elastic). The above solutions do not interfere with the rights of producers or apathetic bacon eaters.
However, there are already private means to reinforce humane slaughter practices for animals bred for commercial meat. If meat eaters demand “humane” pork it is in the best interest of producers to satisfy this consumer preference. Ethical pork processors like Beeler’s Pure Pork have branded themselves as offering humane pork products. The company’s website describes facilities that are not only spacious and hygienic. Even providing pigs with adequate shelter from inclement weather. These amenities for their livestock are an attempt to meet the demands of the niche ethical meat market; without the coercive force of municipal, state, and federal laws. Individual firms taking matters into their own are not the only private measures that can enforce ethical slaughter practices. Apolitical third-party organizations can examine and certify living conditions and slaughter practices, a fine example is the program implemented by American Humane.
This Amendment Increases the Price of Pork
The animal welfare interest of Section 1322.1(a) may viscerally tug at our heartstrings, but it overshadows one of the central concerns of consumer welfare; prices! The provisions in Proposition 12, directly and indirectly, increase the price of pork sold in California. The spike in pork prices is not the result of market demand for pork chops but the costs of compliance with the law. Since the law requires larger enclosures for living and husbandry, pig farmers will need more land or materials to accommodate the conditions specified in Section 1322.1(a). Since pig farmers do not raise pigs out of “..benevolence..”, but for profit, they must pass these costs along to the consumer to stay afloat financially.
Indirectly, this measure raises prices by implementing onerous requirements that reduce the number of vendors willing to sell and process pork products in California. The Law of Supply and Demand applies here because legally restricting the number of qualified producers will decrease the pork supply and increase the supply (providing the demand remains constant). Pork prices will level off once the few complying firms can meet current pork demand (or if demand for pork slumps). In-state farmers might choose to close shop, but the most devasting impact will come from the out-of-state producers choosing the California market. It is estimated that 87 % of “…pork sold in California comes from pigs raised outside the state..”. While consumers can boycott goods, suppliers can deny service in protest. A lesson currently being learned in Florida (Truckers refusing to service Florida due to new immigration laws). Pork producers could refuse to sell their products in California to protest the new animal welfare regulations.
Regulations Cannot Guarantee Animal Welfare
California is projected to experience a “..$320M economic loss..” from the animal welfare initiative. This is a hefty price tag considering these measures cannot guarantee that this improves the safety and sanitation of pigs bred for consumption. It is nearly impossible to promulgate airtight laws with no loopholes. Nor can any public policy measure anticipate every possible environmental threat to the well-being of pigs raised for pork. One blindspot in the regulation highlighted by pig farmers is that the initiative never accounted for the harm caused by pig-on-pig aggression, an issue easily remedied by confinement measures prohibited under Section 1322.1(a).
This is because laws, like all forms of government action, suffer from the “pretense of knowledge”, a concept formulated by Nobel Laureate; F.A. Hayek. Since information is dispersed and is ..not concentrated in any single individuals or institutions..”, regulation is a top-down approach that is too lethargic and inflexible in addressing consumer preferences. It is best to let individual firms tailor their slaughter and meat processing practices to the needs of their customers instead of a one-size-fits-all rule.