Bacon may disappear in California as pig rules take effect

Pork Prices California

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Thanks to a reworked menu and long hours, Jeannie Kim managed to keep her San Francisco restaurant alive during the coronavirus pandemic.

That makes it all the more frustrating that she fears her breakfast-focused diner could be ruined within months by new rules that could make one of her top menu items — bacon — hard to get in California.

“Our number one seller is bacon, eggs and hash browns,” said Kim, who for 15 years has run SAMS American Eatery on the city’s busy Market Street. “It could be devastating for us.”

At the beginning of next year, California will begin enforcing an animal welfare proposition approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 that requires more space for breeding pigs, egg-laying chickens and veal calves. National veal and egg producers are optimistic they can meet the new standards, but only 4% of hog operations now comply with the new rules. Unless the courts intervene or the state temporarily allows non-compliant meat to be sold in the state, California will lose almost all of its pork supply, much of which comes from Iowa, and pork producers will face higher costs to regain a key market.

Animal welfare organizations for years have been pushing for more humane treatment of farm animals but the California rules could be a rare case of consumers clearly paying a price for their beliefs.

With little time left to build new facilities, inseminate sows and process the offspring by January, it’s hard to see how the pork industry can adequately supply California, which consumes roughly 15% of all pork produced in the country.

“We are very concerned about the potential supply impacts and therefore cost increases,” said Matt Sutton, the public policy director for the California Restaurant Association.

California's restaurants and groceries use about 255 million pounds of pork a month, but its farms produce only 45 million pounds, according to Rabobank, a global food and agriculture financial services company.

The National Pork Producers Council has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for federal aid to help pay for retrofitting hog facilities around the nation to fill the gap. Hog farmers said they haven't complied because of the cost and because California hasn't yet issued formal regulations on how the new standards will be administered and enforced.

Barry Goodwin, an economist at North Carolina State University, estimated the extra costs at 15% more per animal for a farm with 1,000 breeding pigs.

If half the pork supply was suddenly lost in California, bacon prices would jump 60%, meaning a $6 package would rise to about $9.60, according to a study by the Hatamiya Group, a consulting firm hired by opponents of the state proposition.

At one typical hog farm in Iowa, sows are kept in open-air crates measuring 14-square-feet when they join a herd and then for a week as part of the insemination process before moving to larger, roughly 20-square foot group pens with other hogs. Both are less than the 24 square feet required by the California law to give breeding pigs enough room to turn around and to extend their limbs. Other operations keep sows in the crates nearly all of the time so also wouldn't be in compliance.