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Judge delays Prop 12 enforcement on California retailers

California cannot enforce Proposition 12 against food retailers until it issues overdue regulations to assure they sell pork only from farms that comply with the animal-welfare law, said a Superior Court judge on Tuesday. The meat industry cheered the ruling, but state officials said pork producers and suppliers are still obliged to obey Prop 12, which took effect on January 1.

Approved by a landslide margin by voters in 2018, Prop 12 requires hog farmers to provide at least 24 square feet of floor space for breeding sows — far more room than is common. It also bans sale of pork produced on farms, whether in California or elsewhere, that do not meet that standard. Most of the pork sold in California is imported from other states.

The meat industry and farm groups say Prop 12 is an unacceptable burden on their operations and hope the Supreme Court will declare it an unconstitutional meddling in interstate commerce. Court justices refused last June to consider a challenge to Prop 12 and have yet to decide whether to hear a new challenge. “The laws of one state should not set the rules for an entire nation,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the groups seeking Supreme Court review.

Superior Court Judge James Arguelles, based in the state capital of Sacramento, delayed enforcement of Prop 12 against grocers and retailers until six months after the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) puts its final version of Prop 12 regulations into effect. They were supposed to be issued by September 19, 2019, but are still being drafted.

A coalition of business owners, trade groups for grocers and retailers, and a meat processing company argued, and Arguelles agreed, they should not be subject to penalties under Prop 12 until regulations spell out a system to verify the source of the pork in commerce. Violation of Prop 12 is a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both.

Although the coalition asked for a 28-month delay in enforcement, Arguelles chose six months and cited voters’ concerns, in passing Prop 12, “about cruel confinement” of livestock. “The delay must not exceed a period that is necessary,” he said. “The court’s writ will remain in effect until 180 days after final regulations go into effect. After the final regulations are enacted, the parties may return to this court for any appropriate adjustment to the date.”

The CDFA said the ruling “is a narrow one that applies only to retailers, including grocers, and not to pork producers providing pork products to California. Pork producers and suppliers remain subject to enforcement if they violate the square-footage requirement that went into effect on Jan. 1.”

In a statement, the CDFA said it “continues its work to develop implementing regulations for Proposition 12, moving as quickly as possible while ensuring full consideration is given to extensive comments submitted by stakeholders during a recent comment period.”

Farm groups have fought Prop 12, and a 2008 predecessor, in court for years without success. They asked for a delay in implementation of Prop 12 because the final regulations were still in development. The CDFA said the implementation date was set by law and could not be changed.

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