North Carolina should follow California’s lead on hog farming

By: - April 5, 2022 6:00 am

(Photo by Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service)

(Photo by Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service)

As the dire worldwide climate emergency makes ever clearer, humans have much urgent work to do when it comes to dramatically reducing fossil fuel emissions. Even with rapid and ambitious action, the effects of global warming will  worsen in the decades ahead and the best-case scenarios will be largely about minimizing harm.

That said, the situation would likely be measurably worse today if it were not for the actions of one very important state: California. Thanks to the more stringent air pollution standards adopted and enforced over the last half century in California (a huge state and car market that’s home to roughly one of every eight Americans), auto manufacturers have been forced to improve emissions technology on the vehicles they sell across the nation. This is a trend that we can only hope continues.

Interestingly and encouragingly, air pollution is not the only subject on which the giant California market has been leading the nation and forcing industry to adapt and modernize in recent years. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a lawsuit that will spotlight another large and important industry impacted by California regulations – and in this case, North Carolina is one of the states likely to be most affected.

The subject is hog farming.

As Clark Kauffman of the Iowa Capital-Dispatch reported recently, the case revolves around an issue not unfamiliar to North Carolinians: the conditions in which hogs are raised and forced to exist in industrial farms. (Iowa is the nation’s top pork producing state, while North Carolina ranks third.)

Under the California law, pork sold within that state must come from farms that abide by some very minimal animal cruelty standards for the treatment of breeding pigs. The law requires that the animals in question must have enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

As Kauffman reports:

One element of the law defines as ‘cruel confinement’ a breeding-pig enclosure that provides less than 24 square feet — the equivalent of a 6-foot by 4-foot area — of usable floor space per pig. The law applies to all of the pork sold in California, regardless of where it was raised.”

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, elements of the pork production industry have tried to block the law. As we once heard confidently asserted with respect to air pollution standards and countless other business regulations down through the years – from limits on child labor to the enactment of basic workplace safety requirements – the claim is that such laws are a recipe for economic disaster for the pork industry.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist Michael Hiltzik explained in a powerful February essay in the Los Angeles Times, however, there is strong reason to view this claim with great skepticism – and, perhaps more important, to remember some of the gruesome details of what’s really at issue here.

First, as to the economics question, it’s true that many players in the industry will have to adapt to this change and that it will cost money – some of which will undoubtedly be passed on to consumers. But, of course, that’s something that’s happened countless times before in response to advances in human society. What’s more, there’s reason to believe many dire industry claims are exaggerated. Hiltzik, for example, points us to an October 2020 memo from the giant meat producer Hormel stating that it was “preparing to fully comply when the law.”

But as Hiltzik also reminds us, there’s something even more important than economics at stake in this debate: basic human decency.

Yes, it’s true that even under the most humane conditions, raising and slaughtering animals for meat and poultry is a process not for the squeamish. And there’s undoubtedly something a bit naïve and even hypocritical about comfortable city dwellers and suburbanites who happily pile on the bacon while purporting to manage an industry they’ll never experience up close.

But it’s also true that you don’t have to be a hog farmer or courageous enough to visit a slaughterhouse to grasp the inherent immorality in causing intelligent animals to suffer greatly while they are alive.

As Hiltzik points out, the conditions in which many breeding sows live their lives – confined to “coffin-like structures” where “they’re first artificially impregnated at about 7 months of age” and then moved to “farrowing crates” where they can suckle their piglets for a few weeks without rolling over and crushing them, before being impregnated again – are remarkably brutal and cruel and ought to be beneath 21st Century humans.

The bottom line: Just like the air pollution standards it has enacted and made national, California’s animal treatment requirements for hogs are anything but radical. But they do move human society forward in some important ways. The Supreme Court should respect established precedent and allow them to remain in place.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.