Congress Takes on California over Food Safety Laws

Monday, July 16, 2012

A last-minute amendment to national farm legislation approved by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee Friday would block a California law that requires more humane treatment of egg-laying hens.

But the proposal has implications beyond its application to California. It will prevent any state from setting its own standards for how crops and livestock can be produced. The House bill would have to be reconciled with an already-approved Senate version. The deadline is September for the once-every-five-year farm bill, but Congress is usually late.

Warning about the bill’s consequences, Association of California Egg Farmers President Arnie Riebli said, “California also has pesticide laws for fruits and vegetables. They're gone. California has its own standards for fluid milk (requiring fortification with vitamin D). They're gone.” Riebli is a supporter of the state's hen law, which takes effect in 2015.  

The amendment’s sponsor, Iowa Republican Steve King, represents the largest egg-producing state in the nation. He said the California hen law violates the federal Commerce Clause, a reference to an enumerated power in the Constitution’s First Amendment that underpins a range of legislation opposed by political conservatives,  including President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“If California wants to regulate eggs that come into the state, fine,” King said. “But don’t be telling the states that are producing a product that’s already approved by the USDA or the FDA how to produce that product.”

California voters approved Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, 63%-37% in 2008. The measure applies to veal crates, chicken cages and pig gestation crates used to confine farm animals by preventing them from turning around freely, lying down, standing up and fully extending their limbs.

A year and a half after the initiative passed, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that extended the protections to out-of-state birds, plugging a hole in the original measure that would have encouraged the importation of cheaper, unprotected bird products from other states.

California is the nation’s fifth-largest egg producer. Around 90% of eggs produced in the United States come from hens housed in the kind of cages California is trying to outlaw.

Riverside County egg farmer William Cramer filed a federal lawsuit in April challenging Proposition 2 as being “unconstitutionally vague” and a violation of the Commerce Clause.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Votes Assail State Laws on Food Safety (by Carolyn Lockhead, San Francisco Chronicle)

House Farm Bill Threatens Calif. Animal Welfare Laws (by Kim Geiger, Los Angeles Times)

Jail for Caging a Hen? Egg Farmer Asks (by Matt Reynolds, Courthouse News)

Leave a comment