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California grocers win brief reprieve from new bacon law

Grocers say the state's failure to implement an "audit trail" on pork products means they're shouldering the legal risks of requirements to sell meat from pigs that have been raised humanely.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A California judge has barred the state from enforcing a new animal welfare law requiring extra living space for breeding pigs, ruling grocery stores or restaurants can’t be fined until regulators cement clear rules for the pork industry.

In a partial win for California grocers who claim they can’t reasonably determine whether their pork products comply with the law meant to combat animal cruelty, the judge granted the retailers a 6-month grace period that takes effect once regulators enact final regulations.

Both supplier and farming groups warn the so-called “bacon law” will be hard to implement and likely lead to rising consumer costs in 2022.

Overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 2018, the law prohibits the sale of pork products that come from a breeding pig given less than 24 square feet of usable floorspace. The proposition was sold to voters as means to ensure Californians weren’t consuming pork, chicken eggs or veal products raised in inhumane conditions.

Though the law went into effect Jan. 1, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has yet to adopt final framework. Grocers and restaurant groups argued in court that the state’s waffling essentially opened them up to potential fines or lawsuits.

“This disconnect between Proposition 12 as approved by voters and the state’s implementation of the law in the marketplace leaves market participants shouldering all of the uncertainty and legal risks,” the petitioners’ claimed in their complaint. “The state’s inability to put in place regulations implementing Proposition 12 in a timely manner will lead to substantial disruptions in the state’s pork supply chain in 2022.”

The petitioners, including the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce as well as the California Grocers Association and California Retailers Association, say there is no tracking system to determine whether pork sold derives from pigs given adequate living space. They argued that nearly 90% of pork sold in California is from out of state and that hog producers have been slow to react to Proposition 12. Californians eat approximately 13% of the country’s pork on average.

State regulators countered that suppliers and retailers have had over three years to create an interstate tracking system but have been far from proactive.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles decided to give the retailers a six-month cushion, far less than the 28 they requested. The narrow ruling issued this week only applies to the retailers, meaning pork producers selling to California must continue to abide by the tougher breeding space requirements.

Arguelles agreed the onus is on the state to help create a pork “audit trail” going forward.

“The act offers no guidance about the steps sellers must take before they should know that a particular product is traceable to a breeding pig that at some point in the distribution chain was confined in fewer than 24 square feet,” Arguelles wrote.

The judgment also explicitly declares that petitioners and their members are not subject to the prohibition on pork sales until 180 days after state regulations are formalized. The order does not pertain to standards for veal and poultry products that are already in effect.  

The petitioners applauded the court’s order but said the temporary relief isn’t certain to fend off a “bacon crisis” in the absence of completed overarching guidelines.  

“Fact is fact and the final regulations that are needed to effectively implement Proposition 12 are still not in place — leaving the state’s food supply chain in an impossible position of determining how to comply,” said the California Retailers Association in an email. “The supply chain is extremely complex and the 180-day delay to implement the changes mandated by final regulations is a short timeframe.”

Arguelles, appointed by former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, defended the six-month grace period, saying the “court must be mindful of the [proposition’s] concern about cruel confinements.”

Steve Lyle, spokesperson for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the state was still reviewing the order and determining next steps.

"CDFA continues its work to develop implementing regulations for Proposition 12, moving as quickly as possible while ensuring full consideration is given to extensive comments submitted by stakeholders during a recent public comment period," Lyle said in an email.

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