Pork Ruling Prompts Groups To Demand Voter Law Implementation

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BOSTON (State House News Service) - Animal welfare activists believe previously stalled Massachusetts regulations limiting the sale of pork products can kick into effect as early as June 11, and they want state officials who so far have remained mostly silent to take an aggressive enforcement approach.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a California livestock treatment law similar to the measure Massachusetts voters enacted in 2016. A day later, advocates who backed the initiative petition here wrote to Attorney General Andrea Campbell urging her to make clear that the countdown to implementation has started and that consequences loom for any restaurants or stores who do not comply.

"This should all be spelled out and it should be quite clear for everyone," said Animal Wellness Action President Wayne Pacelle, whose group described him as an "architect" of the Massachusetts ballot question that sailed through 78 percent to 22 percent. "It couldn't have been a more lopsided vote, and it's time for the agencies that have responsibilities in this domain to fulfill their duties to the Constitution, to the people of Massachusetts."

The voter-approved law created new farm animal welfare standards and prohibited the sale of eggs, veal and pork produced in violation of the more generous housing requirements -- even if the animals in question were raised and slaughtered in other states.

Regulations on eggs and veal are already in effect, and lawmakers previously delayed the start of the pork restrictions until Aug. 15, 2022. But regulators, restaurants and retailers agreed last year to pause implementation of the pork provisions until they knew the outcome of a legal challenge that industry groups launched against a similar California law.

Last week, the nation's highest court delivered that long-awaited decision. In a 5-4 ruling that featured written opinions from five judges, the court rejected the argument by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the Biden administration that California, which imports more than 99 percent of the pork it uses, was effectively regulating other states by imposing standards on production methods.

"Companies that choose to sell products in various States must normally comply with the laws of those various States. Assuredly, under this Court's dormant Commerce Clause decisions, no State may use its laws to discriminate purposefully against out-of-state economic interests," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority ruling. "But the pork producers do not suggest that California's law offends this principle. Instead, they invite us to fashion two new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders. We decline that invitation."

"While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list," Gorsuch added.

Although they impose different space standards, both the 2016 Massachusetts voter-approved law and the 2018 California voter-approved law prohibit the sale of products from animals held in conditions deemed cruel.

Pacelle, who has worked on animal welfare initiative petition campaigns in several states, said the California question known as Proposition 12 was modeled in part on the Massachusetts measure that voters approved two years earlier.

Regulations the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources promulgated last year require breeding pigs to have enough space to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. Any meat derived from a pig housed in violation of those standards could not be sold in Massachusetts, though the ban does not extend to "combination food products" for sale like soups and hot dogs that use pork as an ingredient.

"This is not some broad-minded animal rights manifesto. This is common sense that animals built to move should be allowed to move. They're all acting like we're calling for all pigs and chickens to be completely living in condominiums or something," Pacelle said. "It's really just an overreaction, disproportionate amount of hand-wringing over a simple measure."

Days before those provisions were set to take effect, industry groups, then-Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources signed a joint motion to stay their enforcement until the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision in the California case.

The order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf stayed any action "until 30 days after the issuance [of the] Supreme Court's decision," which would land around Saturday, June 10. Parties must confer within 10 days of the high court's final ruling and propose a plan within 20 days for any future court proceedings.

Five days after the high court handed down its opinion, Massachusetts regulators have not outlined any clear next steps.

A Healey administration spokesperson at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the Department of Agricultural Resources, declined comment this week, saying the agency is being represented by the AG's office. At Attorney General Campbell's office, a spokesperson said only that the Supreme Court ruling is still under review and declined further comment.

Pacelle said he believes the clock has already started ticking until the pork regulations, which could carry major impacts for restaurants and grocers, take effect in Massachusetts.

"I contacted my general counsel right after the court ruling and said, 'take a look and remind me what the trigger is and what the timeframe is for implementation.' He came back to me and said '30 days after the decision,' so I interpret that as 30 days after the decision itself is the trigger," Pacelle said. "My view is June 11 or June 12 for full implementation."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Campbell's office has not responded to the letter from Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy General Counsel Scott Edwards, Pacelle said.

"We are relying on you to fulfill your obligations to the citizens of Massachusetts and instruct your staff and law enforcement officials in the state to alert food retailers to the imminent implementation of the law," Edwards wrote to Campbell. "Should retailers defy the law, after it takes effect in the first half of June, we ask for your diligent enforcement of its provisions at the onset, sending a signal that the state is serious about honoring its anti-cruelty laws and the verdict of citizens who backed Question 3 in a landslide majority vote."

U.S. Supreme Court rulings have been a major force in Massachusetts policymaking in recent years.

The leak of a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade -- which was later confirmed in the final ruling -- prompted immediate State House rallies and calls for action. Another ruling striking down a New York state gun law with Massachusetts implications pushed lawmakers into action, and then-AG Healey issued an advisory to law enforcement about the decision's impacts on the Bay State about eight days after its publication.

The NPPC, which challenged the California law and was also a party in a Massachusetts case seeking to pause the Bay State's regulations, criticized the ruling as a major blow.

"We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court's opinion. Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation," said Scott Hays, a Missouri pork producer and NPPC president, in a statement. "We are still evaluating the Court's full opinion to understand all the implications. NPPC will continue to fight for our nation's pork farmers and American families against misguided regulations."

The ruling did not break down along traditional ideological lines. Gorsuch and Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett -- all appointed by Republicans -- were joined in the majority by Democrat-appointed Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanuagh and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.

Written By Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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