Larry Katz is smoking mad.
And the owner of Arnold’s Meats, a family-run butcher and wholesaler in Western Massachusetts, has the Supreme Court to blame for it.
A high court ruling earlier this month on animal welfare regulations in California could soon have major implications for Massachusetts. On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld a California law requiring pork products sold in the state meet certain guidelines: The pigs must live in pens big enough for them to stand up and turn around in. Seven years ago, Massachusetts voters approved a similar law, which has been in limbo ever since.
Now the Massachusetts law could soon go into effect, and it will cover the sale of all uncooked “whole pork” items: bacon, ham, chops, ribs, roasts, or cutlets made entirely of pork meat. Hot dogs and other combined pork products do not fall under this purview.
Pork purveyors here say that means prices are about to pop. Katz fears his cuts could double or triple in price, at a time when consumers are already feeling burned by inflation.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s making life miserable for everybody.”
It began with an effort to make life better for pigs.
In 2016, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved the Act to Prevent Cruelty to Farm Animals, which required eggs, veal, and pork sold in the state to meet animal welfare standards. At the time, the anti-confinement law was hailed as the most progressive animal protection regulation in the world. The veal industry voluntarily agreed to end the use of crates in 2017, and the “cage-free” egg rules took effect in Massachusetts in 2022.
But the pork regulations were put on hold while industry groups challenged that similar California law, which bans the use of “gestational crates” to raise any pork sold in that giant state. These 7-by-2-foot pens are designed to house 500- to 800-pound sows in such a way that they won’t crush their piglets after birth. But the animals generally spend four months at a time in the crates, unable to move, turn around, or nest with their newborns. Animal rights groups call them “horrific conditions.”
Eight other states have passed laws banning the use of gestational crates for rearing pigs, including Maine and Rhode Island, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Massachusetts and California are the only two that ban sales of pork from such farms.
The pork industry has argued that the new Massachusetts and California standards would make it far harder to raise meat, and would result in higher production costs.
Too bad, said the Supreme Court.
“While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in a majority opinion.
And the same, say supporters of the 2016 Massachusetts ballot measure, should apply here.
“We got 78 percent of the vote” in Massachusetts, said Wayne Pacelle, who helped draft the ballot proposals and is president of Animal Wellness Action. “What it showed is that your average consumer thought it was ludicrous that these animals would be so severely mistreated.”
Now local pork-sellers are waiting for guidance on how to proceed. The attorney general’s office said any petition for a rehearing on the California law would need to be filed by June 5, and if none is made, the high court will issue its final judgment the week of June 12. That would then trigger a 30-day deadline of July 12 for the pork regulations to go into effect.
A spokesman for Attorney General Andrea Campbell said her office is “reviewing the decision and will provide updates when we have more to say about next steps.” Lawmakers so far have been mum about any legislative fixes.
State Senator Jason Lewis, who sponsored the Massachusetts bill, said in a statement that he “is pushing hard for this law to go into effect and start being enforced as soon as possible.”
But even as they await guidance, restaurants, grocery stores, and food banks are bracing for the impact.
“It’s going to hurt the people who are at the margins, and that’s who we service,” said Marc Iannotti, the chief operating officer of the family-run chain of Shop and Compare Markets in Lynn and Chelsea. While prices of other protein sources have ticked up due to pandemic shortages and inflation, he said, pork prices have remained stable, hovering at $1.50 per pound wholesale. Now Iannotti’s vendors are telling him the implementation of the law could result in prices nearly doubling. And that has him worried.
“Our customers are the people who are near or below the poverty line,” he said.
Indeed, purveyors note, many local immigrant populations rely heavily on pork as a staple. Food banks, too, worry what rising pork prices might mean for their pantries.
These changes are “concerning at a time when there is already historic cost of food due to inflation coupled with historic need,” said Catherine Lynn, vice president of communications with the Greater Boston Food Bank. “While these practices may be more humane for the animals, and likely the right thing to do, oftentimes the result tends to act as a regressive measure, disproportionately and negatively impacting those who are less economically advantaged.”
Part of the issue is the food supply chain.
Vanishingly little pork is raised in Massachusetts, or in California. Most of it comes from large processing plants located closer to pig farms in the Midwest. Currently, just 4 percent of US pork meets the new California — and Massachusetts — standards, according to analysts at Rabobank. And while the $54 billion industry has expanded prolifically over the last decade, consumer habits have not kept up. There’s now an oversupply of pork in the market, and hog farmers have recently shuttered operations across the country as their fortunes have faltered. Many are now calling these new restrictions yet another financial blow, as they’re forced to retrofit facilities to meet the requirements.
Jim Monroe, a spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, which slaughters 30 million hogs a year and is the country’s largest pork producer, said that the company spent $360 million to convert its 400 corporate-owned farms to a so-called group-housing system that provides sows with more room, which debuted in 2017.
While some animal rights groups hailed the Smithfield system as more humane, others contend gestational crates remain a significant part of Smithfield’s operations.
Now, Monroe said the company will need to make significant changes to comply with the new laws and sell in California and Massachusetts. “Now, not only have goalposts moved, but they’re moving differently in different states,” Monroe said. “A patchwork of state-by-state regulations is not conducive to an efficient food production system that keeps food affordable.”
“It’s unworkable,” he added. Facility conversions will be expensive, “and unfortunately it’s going to be borne by consumers.”
Still, supporters say it’s worth it. The average American eats one-third of a pig each year — just over 50 pounds of pork — Pacelle said. Some 130 million pigs are slaughtered annually. Given those numbers, he said voters in Massachusetts and California are bending the nation’s food supply for the better.
“The public does not have an appetite for this kind of inhumane treatment of farm animals,” he said.
And the voters knew what they were doing when they voted in these rules, said Parke Wilde, a professor in food policy at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
“I think protecting animals that provide our food from the worst forms of cruelty is something that’s popular with voters,” he said. “I don’t think voters were oblivious to the fact that there would be some price implications.”
Of course, a lot has happened to food prices since 2016. COVID-19 outbreaks at processing plants resulted in meat shortages and exposed the vulnerability of the supply chain. And record-level inflation has made consumers more stressed about costs.
Before the portion of the ballot measure that covered eggs took effect in January 2022, state lawmakers reworked it to prevent Massachusetts’ egg market from cracking by adding a stipulation that hens could be housed in facilities where they are able to move around vertically. Even so, the law was cited as a reason the cost of eggs jumped to record levels late last year, as the new welfare standards, coupled with an avian flu outbreak, put excess strain on the supply chain.
Now, in the wake of “Egg-mageddon,” those working in the food service industries in Massachusetts are figuring out how to prepare for a potential pork-pocalypse.
“There is not going to be enough compliant pork that meets the Massachusetts regulations,” said Steve Clark, head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “You’re going to see availability go down and price go up.”
And already beleaguered restaurant owners worry that will make their customers squeal.
Brian Treitman owns the B.T.’s Smokehouse restaurants in Sturbridge, Worcester, and at the Polar Park baseball complex, and last year bought 200,000 pounds of pork butt and 150,000 pounds of ribs. He and his co-owner were running the numbers this week and think they might have to hike the pulled pork sandwich prices from $13 to $17 per plate.
Pulled pork “is one of those items on the menu that helps you keep your costs down, it’s easily accessible,” he said. Ribs are pricier: They cost $1.79 per pound before the pandemic, but have ticked up to $3.50. “We were looking at what kind of business we did for ribs last year and whether it’s worth keeping them on the menu if they hit $6 or $7 a pound.”
He joked about the possibility of opening a commissary in Connecticut to prepare his pulled pork and then transport it into Massachusetts (the law only pertains to uncooked pork).
That probably won’t happen. But pork producers, and purveyors, probably need to find ways to adapt, rather than battling the new rules in court, said Pacelle. Consumers want to know that the food they eat has been ethically raised, he said.
Their backs are against the wall, he said, and “they’re really getting more and more isolated.”
In short, he said, they’re now penning themselves in.