Taking a crack at California egg law

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Here in the Heartland, we’re far removed from the West Coast, both geographically and culturally. What’s happening out there doesn’t really affect us here, right?

Wrong.

Farmers in Missouri and every other U.S. state should be concerned about what’s happening in California, where a law has not only made raising livestock more difficult and costly for its own producers but also for those outside its borders.
Egg production is at the center of this conflict, spawned by the

“Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act” (also known as Proposition 2). Passed in 2008, the law banned battery cages in California beginning in 2015. More than 90 percent of eggs in the U.S. are produced in this type of poultry housing, named for its arrangement of rows and columns of connecting cages that share common divider walls, like battery cells.

The California act says that hens must have room to stand up, lie down, turn around freely and fully extend their limbs—about twice as much space as the industry standard. It was a costly proposition for the state’s farmers, who were either forced to spend money to upgrade facilities or go out of business.

State legislators later expanded the law to ban the import of eggs from any hens not raised in compliance with California standards. In other words, if you want to sell eggs in California, you have to abide by its rules.

So why are we talking about a nearly 10-year-old law? Opponents are taking a new crack at fighting it. In December, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the California statute. He made the announcement Dec. 4 at the Missouri Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, telling the ag-friendly audience that the law is “unconstitutional and a clear attempt by big-government proponents to impose job-killing regulations.”

It may be an uphill battle. Judges have shot down challenges to the California law before. In 2014, a District Court judge dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by Missouri and five other states. A federal appeals court upheld that dismissal, noting that the states themselves had not proven damages. If egg producers feel wronged, the panel ruled, they can file suit on their own behalf. In May 2017, the Supreme Court also declined to take up the matter.

This time, however, Hawley is arguing that Missouri, not just its chicken farmers, is being harmed. Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer, and 11 other states have joined the latest suit, which alleges that California’s regulations violate the U.S. Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Act and are pre-empted by federal law.

The lawsuit also argues economics, citing new data that estimates California’s egg law has cost consumers nationwide up to $350 million annually as a result of higher prices. I’ve appreciated buying eggs recently for $1.50 or less per dozen here in Missouri. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices like folks in California do, but that’s what laws like this could mean.

Pointing out that 30 percent of Missouri eggs are exported to California, Hawley said the issue has the potential to significantly impact our state’s agriculture and economy. And there’s fear it could lead to beef, pork and other Midwest farm products being banned from California sales.

Ultimately, this issue boils down to a brawl between animal rights activists and agricultural producers. The Humane Society of the United States was the key sponsor of Prop 2 to
begin with, and the extremist group has just hatched a new initiative that will make California’s requirements even stricter—forcing farmers to raise chickens in cage-free conditions. The initiative, submitted to the state this past August by the HSUS, addresses concerns that the 2008 regulation did not achieve what they wanted. If the new measure passes, by 2022, California hens and other animals will be roaming free inside their barns.

There’s no doubt this issue is controversial and complicated. But the way I see it, the argument isn’t whether hens would be happier in bigger cages. It’s a slippery slope to allow one state to dictate the farming practices of citizens in another state. Plus, it’s another case in which decisions about livestock production practices should be left to those who are most informed about animal care—farmers—not legislators and most certainly not activists. For those of us ingrained in the ag industry, anything the HSUS endorses is suspect. After all, its mission is to end animal agriculture altogether.

You can’t lobby Supreme Court Justices, so the ag industry doesn’t really have a call to action here other than keeping a close eye on the case. Denial of the lawsuit in the highest court could start other regulatory wars between the states with consequences we can’t yet imagine. 

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