Is the Pork Industry Using Food Justice to Stall California’s New Animal Welfare Law? | Civil Eats

Is the Pork Industry Using Food Justice to Stall California’s New Animal Welfare Law?

An alliance of pork producers, retailers, and minority business associations are warning that shortages and price increases could harm communities of color. Others question their motives.

Young Asian father grocery shopping with cute little daughter in supermarket, they are shopping for fresh meat

In June, Progressive Farmer warned of a looming pork shortage and sticker shock that would disproportionately harm California’s “diverse ethnic consumers.” In July, the Associated Press (AP) ran a similar story that was picked up by multiple national publications declaring bacon might disappear in the state, featuring a Korean American restaurant owner who said the law “could be devastating” for her business.

Driving these stories was a warning from an industry worried about the looming implementation of Proposition 12, the animal welfare ballot initiative that California voters approved by a wide margin in 2018. After a three-year phase-in, the law’s final requirements will go into effect on January 1, 2022. Among other rules that affect chickens and veal calves, Prop. 12 mandates minimum space requirements for breeding pigs typically housed in gestation crates and will ban the sale of fresh pork from producers in any state who don’t meet those requirements.

It’s a change the pork industry has already attempted to fight from multiple angles, and this newest public relations push revolves around an entity called the Food Equity Alliance and a simple price-and-supply analysis commissioned by the group that warns of pork shortages and their impact on communities of color.

But the analysis, which the AP erroneously called a study, was far from a comprehensive evaluation of the law’s potential impacts on prices and supply, and the Alliance is not, as the name suggests, an existing group fighting for food justice. It’s an entity that began developing its web and social media presence this spring when it started calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to delay the implementation of Prop. 12. Its members represent various business interests, including the California Pork Producers Association and some groups that represent diverse populations, such as the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

Civil Eats reached out to the Alliance and was connected to Tiffany Moffatt, a senior counselor at public relations firm Elevate Public Affairs, who asked to be identified as the group’s spokesperson. She told Civil Eats that the group does not have a position on the merits of Prop. 12 and is simply asking for a delay in the law’s implementation because the California Department of Agriculture (CDFA) was late in publishing regulations and the pork industry will not be able to comply in time, resulting in supply issues. But supporters of the law say producers, retailers, and other companies involved in this supply chain have known the core requirements for nearly three years and are now using the issue of “equity” in a last-ditch effort to delay making the changes.

“They are trying to wage this covert PR campaign . . . to make these wild claims related to pork sales, when all they have to do is allow their mother pigs to turn around and give them more space,” said Josh Balk, the vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which led the push to pass Prop. 12 in California.

Meanwhile, food equity experts and advocates say that while overall concerns about short-term price increases are valid, the argument ignores bigger, systemic questions around healthy food access. “It’s part of the conversation, but [price] is part of this more complex ecosystem,” said Christine Tran, the executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which includes animal welfare in its framework for food that is “healthy, affordable, fair and sustainable for all.”

Who’s Behind the Food Equity Alliance?

The Food Equity Alliance’s website was created by Dauntless Communications, a company that provides web development and political campaign services for Republican lawmakers and conservative causes. It was founded by Eric Eisenhammer, who also leads a free-market think tank. Other Dauntless projects include conservative commentator Megan Barth’s ReaganBabe, a campaign that stokes fears of “criminal illegal aliens” to drum up opposition to the Sanctuary State law, and Eisenhammer’s own Coalition for Energy Users, which advocates against renewable energy subsidies and oil and gas tax increases.

Dauntless uses a sparse, formulaic structure for many of the political sites it develops, and the Food Equity Alliance site is no different; it features no content that isn’t related to Prop. 12, a number of stock photos of minority families and restaurateurs, and no contact information. In addition to the California Pork Producers Council, its list of members includes a few other pork companies, California’s biggest restaurant and grocery associations, and a handful of Latinx and Asian restaurant and business associations, including the Latino Restaurant Association and National Asian American Coalition.

A spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the voice of the industry, said “NPPC absolutely supports the Food Equity Alliance” when asked whether the organization is involved in the Alliance in any way.

A decade ago, Neil Thapar, the former director of the food and farm program at California’s Sustainable Economies Law Center, worked on an analysis of Proposition 2, a less aggressive ballot measure that paved the way for Prop. 12. Opponents of Prop. 2 also warned of price increases, but racial inequities were not integrated into the argument in the same way, said Thapar, who recently co-founded Minnow, an organization working on land justice for BIPOC farmers. However, the Food Equity Alliance’s approach looks a lot like the playbook used by the beverage industry to fight soda taxes in the Bay Area, he said.

“They found corner store owners and small grocery owners, all people of color, and you couldn’t watch a YouTube video without seeing an ad,” he said of anti-soda tax campaigns. “They’d have a bunch of pictures of people of color and a bunch of pictures of small businesses and they’d sort of pretend that they were on the side of the little guy.” During that campaign, the soda industry ran ads that specifically shared misinformation, calling the soda tax a “grocery tax.”

Moffatt said the group’s main concern is price increases due to the CDFA’s delay in issuing a regulatory framework for Prop. 12. The proposition directed the CDFA to create the framework by September 2019; a draft was not released until May 2021 and has yet to be finalized. The overall law includes new housing requirements for egg-laying hens, veal calves, and hogs. The veal and egg industries have said they are largely already in compliance, and a few pork companies, including Hormel and Coleman Natural Foods, have embraced the changes and expect to be ready by January.

But only 4 percent of the country’s overall pork supply is currently in compliance, and California consumes about 15 percent, according to the APThat gap is the basis for the Alliance’s predictions. Moffat and representatives of a few of the Alliance’s member organizations held a press conference to release the document—a three-page memo produced by a consulting firm—that referred to pork shortages and price spikes. In the memo, consultant Lon Hatamiya compiled California-specific economic data pulled from a comprehensive analysis of factors that drive pork prices across the U.S. That analysis was done by economists Jayson Lusk and Glynn Tonsor and funded by the National Pork Board. Hatamiya’s widely cited conclusion is that “a 50 percent reduction in available bacon would result in 60 percent higher bacon prices in the Los Angeles market.”

In an interview, Tonsor explained that the estimate represented a “scaling up” of his conclusions around how a reduction of supply in L.A. would impact price. In his analysis, he included the example that a 10 percent reduction in bacon availability in L.A. would cause prices to rise 12 percent. He was comfortable with applying that calculation to a 50 percent decrease in supply, but it gave him slight pause because “when you have big changes, some of our models don’t work quite as well,” he said. “But it’s in the realm of what we’d expect, and I think that is the best we have to work with.”

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These numbers are based solely on an immediate drop in supply because the nation’s pork won’t meet the law’s requirements, and not on increased production costs over the long term. CDFA told the AP that the pork industry has had the information it needs about the law’s foundational requirements since 2018.

“What have they been doing since November 2018?” asked Balk of HSUS. “All this time has passed, and the industry has been fighting year after year and spending I don’t know how much on these lawsuits . . . and they haven’t spent that money to just change the production system.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board made a similar argument on its opinion page in early August, writing, “If bacon costs more next year, blame the pork producers, not the law.”

Jill Damskey, a spokesperson for the California Pork Producers Association, declined a phone interview with Civil Eats. But in response to an emailed question about why the industry did not begin to make changes sooner to prepare, she said that the law specifically required regulations to be issued by September 2019, which would have given producers a two-year period to comply. “There is tremendous cost to pork producers and there needs to be clarity on what is exactly expected,” she wrote. At a hearing CDFA held on August 27, Damskey and several other individuals involved in the industry reiterated that point.

If producers do eventually comply in order to continue selling pork in the state, there is evidence that while prices might rise over the long term, they wouldn’t be nearly as high as the short-term estimates that are circulating. A U.C. Davis study examined each component within the supply chain and estimated Prop. 12 would raise production costs about 15 percent per market hog. The cost passed through to the consumer, however, is less. The researchers predict an 8 percent increase in the price of uncooked pork, equal to about $0.25 per pound, which would work out to Californians paying $3.55 for a pound of pork compared to an average retail price of $3.30.

“Uncooked” is a key term, notes Union of Concerned Scientists economist Rebecca Boehm. Prop. 12 does not cover cooked pork products such as lunch meats, hot dogs, or prepared and frozen foods. The U.C. Davis study found the change probably won’t affect supply or prices of those products at all. “To present this as a shortage is something we should be cautious of,” Boehm said, especially given how much additional meat is available. “I believe that the cultural implications of this are equally important to consider . . . but there are definitely substitutes in the market.”

Boehm also emphasized that all of the numbers being thrown around are estimates, and the price of meat is based on much more than just the cost of production. “We just published a report on Tyson, about consolidation and concentration in broiler [chicken] processing, and there is a pretty high level in [pork as well],” she said. “Prices are affected by that level of market concentration.” And that’s without even considering costs of industrial pork that are not factored into the price at the supermarket, such as slaughterhouse waste that impacts public health and disproportionately pollutes communities of color.

The Equity Argument

Observers note that the nature of the industry also complicates the Alliance’s framing of the issue as one of food access and justice. Meat processors often pay immigrants and other workers of color low wages to do dangerous jobs, a situation that intensified during COVID-19. And retail and restaurant associations are usually on the side of corporate—not community—power. For example, the California Restaurant Association, a member of the Alliance, fought against raising the state’s minimum wage in 2016.

“It’s an interesting inversion of racial consciousness to reassert corporate power, and I say that somewhat cautiously, because I don’t want to discount the fact that there are people who will be impacted by increases in the cost of food,” said Joshua Sbicca, a professor at Colorado State University who documented the story of California-based food movement organizations in his 2018 book Food Justice Now! “It’s a zero-sum argument that says you can’t have animal welfare and culturally relevant food, food security, and food access, and I think that’s a false dichotomy.”

Civil Eats reached out to several Alliance members that represent Latinx and Asian communities and did not receive responses. Damskey, at the California Pork Producers Association, forwarded specific questions related to criticisms of the group’s equity approach to Moffat, who reiterated that “pork will potentially become out of reach with higher prices in California that will disproportionately impact consumers with few resources who rely on this nutritious protein as a staple for their families.”

At the CDFA hearing, Prachi Kohli, a legal affairs specialist for the National Diversity Coalition, an Alliance member, said Prop. 12 would exacerbate food insecurity in the state. “More importantly, this will disproportionately affect Asian and Latino families who rely on pork as their primary source of protein,” she added.

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Balk, however, points to the fact that Prop. 12 was a ballot initiative approved by 63 percent of Californians. “I find it shameful that they are implying that communities of color care less about cruelty to animals,” he said. “If you look at where Prop. 12 passed overwhelmingly, the places that got the most votes were the most diverse cities.”

Los Angeles County, for example, is 15 percent Asian, and nearly half of the population claims Hispanic/Latinx ethnicity, according to 2019 Census data. More than 71 percent of voters approved Prop. 12. (Of course, racial communities are not monoliths, Thapar noted, so within any group in the state, there will be supporters and opponents of the law.)

On the ground in L.A., Christine Tran from the Los Angeles Food Policy Council said that a broader lens is needed to improve food equity in California’s low-income communities of color. The Council created what is now a national model for institutional food procurement that integrates values like animal welfare with other considerations, such as nutrition and local economies, to get more healthy, sustainable food to lower-income populations.

Tran said looking only at pork prices not only ignores the fact that people of color often lack workplace protections within meatpacking, restaurant, and retail industries, but also fails to address the real challenges of food access. Supply chains are fragile and grocery stores are sparse, creating an environment in which any fresh, affordable food is hard to find.

Price fluctuations don’t matter if “you’re not talking about structural inequalities and fixing these broken supply chains,” she said. “The price of pork is not that big of a factor. If you really want to talk about food equity, it’s about addressing these bigger structural issues.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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