Illinois pork producers brace for impact from U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Pork producers in Illinois and across the U.S. are scrambling after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled against them. In a 5-4 decision announced earlier this month, the Supreme Court majority voted to dismiss the pork producers’ challenge to Proposition 12, a California law that requires pork producers to give gestating sows 24 feet of space, rather than confining them in crates for their protection.

Chad Leman, a third generation hog farmer and president of the Illinois Pork Producers, said his members are “deeply disappointed” in the ruling.

“We know what is best for the animals. We certainly know more than the activists or the politicians do,” Leman told The Center Square.

The majority of pigs raised in the United States are not produced in California, Leman said. They are produced in the Midwest and in North Carolina.

“What freedom to operate means is that we don’t want states like California telling us what the rules are for growing the pork,” Leman said. “But that ship has sailed. We’re all trying to figure out how to respond to this.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion for the court. Conservatives Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett joined liberal justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to make up the majority.

Conservatives Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh supported the pork producers, along with liberal Katenji Brown Jackson. Last fall, the Associated Press reported that the Biden administration submitted a strongly worded brief to the court on behalf of the pork producers, saying that the California law will mean a “wholesale change in how pork is raised and marketed in this country."

The majority of Illinois hog farms currently run operations that are not compliance with the California requirements, which are set to go into effect nationwide on July 1.

“That would mean that most of our farms would have an immediate reduction in capacity of about 30%, a significant reduction in capacity,” Leman said.

It is possible that the July 1 deadline will be extended, Leman said, adding that pork producers are now in the process of figuring out what to do next.

Some pork producers are already making the changes to their sow housing, Leman said. Pork producers are talking to their packers to determine what premium they will be paid for pigs raised under more expensive conditions.

“Then it comes down to a math equation,” Leman said. “With the premium for the product, what is the payback on the capital improvements needing to be made to all the barns?”

The Supreme Court ruling hits pork producers at a bad time, Leman added. Pork prices have been way down for six months.

“Pork producers have lost a lot of money in the last six months, due to low pork prices and high feed costs,” Leman said. “We’ve seen some significant red ink. And now this Supreme Court decision. There’s some hard decisions that will have to be made."

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