As Proposition 12 takes effect, L.A. pitmasters face a 'once-in-a-generation' pork price crisis

HUNTINGTON PARK, CA-JULY 28, 2023:Abdias Segura, 29, of Lodi, enjoys a 1/2 a rack of pork ribs at Ray's Texas BBQ restaurant in Huntington Park. Proposition. 12, a regulation that makes pork production more humane, is causing pork shortages for restaurants. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Abdias Segura, 29, of Lodi, enjoys a half-rack of pork ribs at Ray's Texas BBQ restaurant in Huntington Park. Proposition 12, a regulation that makes pork production more humane, is causing pork shortages for restaurants. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It's 10 a.m. on a hot Friday in July at Ray's Texas BBQ in Huntington Park. Sebastian Ramirez, who oversees the smokers with his brother, Raul, has already been awake for five hours. The pork spare ribs, cooked low and slow, have been in the smoker for four.

"Las costillas, Sebastian," says Raul, touching the brim of his hat that reads "GoodEnough."

"Ah. Sí. Las costillas," says Sebastian. While the rest of the kitchen prepares the gooey mac and cheese, crisp coleslaw and signature BBQ rice to be served as sides, Sebastian slides on a pair of thick rubber gloves burned to black at the fingertips. First right and then left. He then heaves open the metal doors to reveal a long slab of ribs, glistening beneath a swath of aluminum foil and beet-red parchment paper. A plume of smoke rushes out from behind the doors and hovers below the ceiling.

"Listos," he says. They're ready.

A man behind a restaurant counter talks to two men, their backs to the camera
Sebastian Ramirez, center, co-owner of Ray's Texas BBQ in Huntington Park, takes customers' orders during the lunch hour. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In less than two hours, a herd of industrial workers will form a line up to the register, ready to devour a pound of meat on their short lunch break. What they may not know as they ring the lunch bell is that Los Angeles barbecue pitmasters are carrying an unseen burden.

In the 2018 California general election, 62.66% of voters gave Proposition 12 the green light to make meat production more humane. The latest, and arguably one of the most contentious, statewide animal rights initiatives seeks to expand the confinement areas for calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and breeding pigs on any farm whose product is sold in California.

Read more: Anti-cruelty law that gives pigs more space could raise ham, bacon prices

Now, five years later, pork is moving staggeringly slowly through the supply chain. Travis Cushman, deputy general counsel of the American Farm Bureau Federation, estimates that at most 7% of breeding pig farms have met the proposition's standards — and some just may never get there.

In response to ongoing pushback from the pork industry, the Superior Court for the County of Sacramento instituted a temporary relief period, beginning July 1 of this year, that allows suppliers to continue selling noncompliant pork until Jan. 1, 2024.

The catch? Suppliers must have bought enough pork to last those six months prior to July 1. As pork producers attempt to stretch their noncompliant inventory to the end of the year and make necessary updates to farms, pork prices have risen dramatically.

In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected increased pork prices for the remainder of 2023 and into 2024 due to "tighter-than-previously expected supplies of hogs and expectations for relatively strong demand for hogs at the national level," it said in a statement. While the USDA does not directly report on the conditions of the pork market at the local or state levels, it does account for the degree that state-level policy can affect national markets. The projection, released monthly, has not indicated pork prices this high since Proposition 12 went into effect at the beginning of this year.

In the face of constricted supply and increasing pork prices, Los Angeles pitmasters who are defining the city's barbecue style with oak-smoked pork ribs and thick pulled pork sandwiches now are squirreling away the last bit of pork they can find on the shelves to be able to open for the day.

Read more: From three parks in L.A., grilling that spans the globe

As customers grow more disgruntled over rising prices on menus, pitmasters worry that Proposition 12 could be the last straw to cause their margins to finally collapse. Arnold Rodriguez, founder and seasoned pitmaster of Black Sugar Rib Company, said inflation is straining his business with a level of force he's never seen before.

A person in a straw hat uses tongs to lift ribs from a grill
Arnold Rodriguez, owner and pitmaster of Black Sugar Rib Company, checks on his pork ribs at Smorgasburg at ROW DTLA. (Camryn Brewer / Los Angeles Times)

"Jalapeños have gone up several dollars apiece," said Rodriguez, lifting up his baseball cap and wiping the sweat off his brow. "Mayonnaise has more than doubled by the gallon, and we don't even sell mayonnaise! It's an ingredient that's part of a side item that we don't even sell!"

But it's the pork that really has Rodriguez worried. In a statement, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said there are a variety of reasons as to why the price of pork has increased, including supply chain issues, labor shortages, high production and distribution costs and very strong consumer demand for pork over the last few years. Proposition 12 further stresses an already taut market.

"Currently, U.S. pork producers are facing a once-in-a-generation economic environment," said the NPPC. "They are not profitable and now are faced with deciding to invest millions in altering their barns if they choose to comply with Proposition 12."

Tight supply of various coveted pork cuts only compounds these raised prices for pitmasters. "Luckily I've been finding enough ribs every week for the last three weeks to get me through every Sunday," said Rodriguez, whose Sunday Smorgasburg residency at ROW DTLA specializes in the exacting craftsmanship of smoking pork back ribs. "But if I get a call tomorrow for a big event, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, I'm gonna be scrambling."

When Sebastian Ramirez heard about Proposition 12, he feared that he wouldn't see a steady supply of pork for his smoker anytime soon. To head off the shortage and make it through each hour Ray's is open, Sebastian dashed across the city — as quick as Los Angeles traffic allowed him — to different pork suppliers to stock up. He now has multiple fridges full of pork between his restaurant and his home, and he hopes it will be enough to last through the current shortage.

Read more: Supreme Court upholds California animal cruelty law that bans narrow cages for pigs

For some companies, like the agricultural behemoth Smithfield Foods, the cost of doing business in California is supposedly not worth the hill to climb to meet the state's regulations. So in April, the company closed Farmer John's, its subsidiary meatpacking plant in Vernon. This move was a part of a larger strategic plan to decrease its sow herd in Arizona and California, which would in turn reduce the number of sow farms required to be entirely compliant with Proposition 12. The plant has been the site of numerous peaceful protests, with animal rights activists accusing Smithfield of animal cruelty and worker exploitation. For Sebastian, losing the largest pork supplier west of the Mississippi only piles on the obstacles he faces in a day's work of battling the pork shortage.

Two men walk into an orange stucco building under a sign that says "Ray's BBQ"
Customers Ruben Reyes, left, and Ruben Rosas make their way into Ray's Texas BBQ in Huntington Park. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Jonathan Lovvorn, founder and manager of the Humane Society's animal litigation program, called this shortage "suspicious." He recalled that already this year, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis approved a $75-million settlement between Smithfield Foods and a group of consumers who accused the company of withholding its pork supply to drive up consumer prices.

While a settlement is not necessarily an admission of guilt, Lovvorn is curious where pork supply for these restaurants is really bottlenecking. "I have no doubt that [pitmasters] are experiencing what they say they're experiencing," he says. "The question is: Why? And that makes me a little bit nervous."

A possible answer is that when the Superior Court for the County of Sacramento implemented the temporary relief order, suppliers may not have bought enough noncompliant pork to offset the delay in Proposition 12-compliant pork.

Lovvorn urges restaurants experiencing causalities on the front lines of the pork shortage to call their supplier directly and ask why supply is restricted when producers such as Hormel Foods, Perdue Farms and Applegate Farms all have stated on the record that they can and will supply Proposition 12-compliant meat by the mandated deadline. He suspects that pitmasters may have to approach different suppliers whose farms have the bandwidth to become Proposition 12-compliant.

The proposition mandates that breeding pigs, otherwise known as sows, should live in at least a 24-square-foot area that allows them to stand up and stretch their legs instead of the 2-foot-by-7-foot metal gestation crates that are barely larger than their bodies. Not only are California farmers required to adjust their housing protocols but so must any farmer who sells their product into the state. While the egg and veal industries moved quickly to implement changes after the proposition passed in 2018, the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation filed a lawsuit in 2019 alleging that Proposition 12 violates the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and infringes upon interstate commerce.

The two organizations, based in Iowa and Washington, D.C., respectively, argued that because California imports a majority of the pork it consumes, the burden of California's Proposition 12 would be unfairly carried by out-of-state suppliers. After the groups appealed rulings from the district courts all the way through the appellate courts, the Supreme Court of the United States finally delivered its ruling May 11, 2023, which reinforced California's Proposition 12 and affirmed that other states could pass similar laws to protect the health and welfare of animals.

Pulled pork is weighed on a kitchen scale
Pulled pork is weighed on a kitchen scale at Ray's Texas BBQ in Huntington Park. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Keeping pork in rotation remains the backbone of business for pitmasters like Beatdown BBQ's Jason Selva, who serves pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches to offset the thin margins of brisket. In comparison to pork, Selva says brisket margins are abysmal, and he can't imagine having to base his entire menu on beef products. He thinks of his loyal Hindu customers who can't eat beef but come back to him week after week for pork barbecue.

"We rely on pork to help make the spread," he says.

Selva worries about the fate of his barbecue community and other neighborhood cornerstones in East L.A. whose entire livelihood rests on pork products.

"A lot of my fellow barbecue people in East L.A. [and] carnitas people literally rely on these pork products to make a living for their family, and seeing prices double really impacts margins for a lot of us," says Selva.

In just the past couple of weeks, Selva noticed pork prices per pound have nearly doubled at the Costco Business Center where he typically finds the lowest pricing. When before he could buy a pork butt for somewhere between 99 cents and $1.19 per pound, he now finds himself paying as much as $2.29. Pork back ribs, one of the most popular cuts of pork among L.A. pitmasters, are priced as high as $3.04 per pound, a major blow to his profits.

But the beauty of barbecue, says Selva, is that it grants him the liberty to be creative at times like this. Next month, he is excited to experiment with smoked oxtail birria and take his mind off pork.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.