Americans love few things more than bacon. American media outlets love few things more than running stories about bacon shortages. In 2012, in the face of drought and record-high corn prices, one headline predicted a “Porkpocalypse.” In 2014, outlets fretted over the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which killed millions of piglets around the world. In 2020, the nation was deluged with stories about meat supply chains disrupted as the outbreak of Covid-19 in meatpacking plants sickened workers and shut down slaughterhouses. And now, as California prepares to implement wide-ranging standards mandating more humane housing for animals like egg-laying chickens and pigs, the country’s top outlets have been filled with dire predictions about the coming “bacon apocalypse”
This panic is different from prior ones. Production costs for hog producers and the price of pork for consumers could actually go up this time—unlike with prior fearmongering, when the shortages never materialized. In part, that’s because this piece of legislation is different from prior state legislations intended to reform factory farming: It would change not only how California’s pork producers need to raise their pigs but how any company in any state selling meat to California’s 40 million residents needs to raise them.
The panic from pork producers is palpable. It shows just how comfortable American agribusiness has become with a business model predicated on appalling cruelty—and how uncomfortable it is with the public exercising its democratic rights to reel it in with regulations. But while California’s cage ban might save some animals from the worst of abuses, it will take much more than cage bans to challenge industrialized animal agriculture.
The vast majority of the approximately 130 million pigs slaughtered for meat in the United States every year come from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—commonly known as factory farms—where animals will spend their entire lives confined indoors as they are fattened for slaughter. This economies-of-scale model of producing standardized animal commodities is predicated on squeezing as much productivity as possible from female breeding animals. This relies on so-called gestation crates: individually confining metal cages measuring about 7 by 2 feet, into which pregnant sows will be locked for the 114 days of their gestation, unable to turn around and often unable even to lie down or stretch comfortably.
Crates are so objectively cruel that they’ve been at the heart of animal rights campaigns for decades, producing promises from major processors like Smithfield Foods and major fast-food chains like McDonald’s to shift some of their operations to crate-free systems. Concerned citizens and groups like the Humane Society of the United States have succeeded in getting state-level crate bans on ballot initiatives, winning victories in places like Massachusetts and Florida. These states, however, are not major producers of pork, so even if local producers are obliged to go cage-free by new regulation, most bacon sold in those states will come from leading pig-producing states like North Carolina and Iowa, where crates are standard. (Exact numbers on crate use are hard to come by, but estimates suggest about 96 percent of all factory-farmed animals come from systems that use crates.)
In 2008, over 60 percent of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 2, which would require “that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” But lack of clarity about what exactly that meant and who would enforce it effectively left it dead in the water. In 2018, Proposition 12, a much clearer and expanded version of Proposition 2, again won over 60 percent of the vote, giving egg, veal, and pork producers until January 1, 2022, to conform to new standards, which included giving breeding pigs 24 square feet of space (almost double the space they are afforded in standard gestation crates). What makes Prop 12 different from the anti-crate laws that have passed in other states is that it applies not only to California-based producers but to all producers who want to sell pork in California, including those in places like Iowa.
Given that Californians consume about 255 million pounds of pork every year, Prop 12 has the power to shift how pigs are produced around the USA. But retrofitting factory farms is expensive and changes how most pork companies produce their animals. Some estimates place the cost of retrofitting all CAFOs in the U.S. to cage-free systems in the billions of dollars, costs that might be borne by already highly indebted contract farmers who work with major processors like Smithfield and Tyson. Rather than use their time to comply with the changed regulations, meat producers and processors have been fighting Californians’ democratic decision in court, with the National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation losing an appeal in California, and the North American Meat institute having its petition for Supreme Court consideration rejected. Now, with January 2022 looming, the pork industry, the politicians who support it, and California’s restaurant industry have launched a last-ditch attack.
Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, the two senators from Iowa, have pushed for federal legislation to allow interstate trade to continue unimpeded, arguing that Prop 12 violates interstate commerce laws by imposing Californian law on Iowa. Meanwhile, California’s retail and restaurant lobbies have launched a public relations offensive, backed by white papers and studies conducted by the major agricultural lender Rabobank and agricultural economists, arguing that increased pork prices and decreased supply will harm the Golden State’s businesses and consumers.
Like almost all pushback to meat industry reform, lobbyists’ claims here boil down to a simple and pernicious moral claim: that “consumer welfare,” measured in the cost of food, will be hurt by the ethical decision to vote for animal welfare; in other words, that Californians’ love for animals is going to hurt them at the checkout and that they should reconsider their votes. Media coverage of the affair has taken the bait, with the Associated Press’s Scott McFettridge writing that this is “a rare case of consumers clearly paying a price for their beliefs.”
Given that Californians have twice voted to remove pregnant sows from cages, it’s likely they understand that more humane treatment of animals comes with a price tag. As the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times wrote, in a rebuke of the critics, “For fans of bacon and other pork, any rise in cost is the price of not having a pig suffer before it’s killed for food. It’s a price the animals shouldn’t have to pay.”
But removing animals from cages is the lowest-hanging fruit in combating the animal cruelty that is baked into factory farming. Even in gestation-stall-free systems, sows may be locked in individually confining farrowing crates to nurse their young, injected with drugs to jump-start their estrous cycle as soon as possible so that they can be forcibly impregnated via artificial insemination, and have their piglets euthanized with carbon dioxide if they don’t gain weight fast enough. In industrial animal production, cruelty is systemic, endemic, and inescapable, even if it can be ever so slightly moderated by things like cage-free regulations. And, of course, all animals produced for food, regardless of production system, are slaughtered. In the case of sows, their bodies used up by multiple pregnancies, this likely means getting ground down into highly processed food like sausage. Making pork entirely cruelty-free would render the factory farm production model economically unviable.
Cory Booker’s proposed Farm System Reform Act, which would put a moratorium on the construction of new large CAFOs and introduce a CAFO phaseout by 2040, comes close to proposing this kind of wholesale reform. While the act is imperfect—it makes the mistake of defining CAFOs by size and not by a set of processes—it is perhaps the most serious attempt in American history to rein in industrial animal agriculture. It also offers contract farmers a way out of their relationship with meat corporations, promising debt forgiveness and transition assistance for moving into less impactful animal or crop farming. The legislation, unfortunately, is likely a political nonstarter given the power of American agribusiness. It would also force Americans to eat far less meat, since nonindustrial systems could not possibly be scaled to provide remotely as much meat at remotely as low a price as factory farms.
In the meantime, California may just move the needle on animal treatment, likely at the cost of a bit of a bacon shortage and a price spike in early 2022. Whatever happens, going cage-free is the least we can do for animals. But if voters really wanted to do away with animal cruelty, they would vote with their forks and leave animals off their plates altogether.