Congress Wouldn’t Gut California Chicken Cage Laws, so Missouri Sues to Do It

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The long-delayed, massive federal farm bill will be signed into law by President Barack Obama on Friday, but it will be missing a piece sought by a number of agricultural states—protections from California’s law requiring they comply with the state’s larger hen-laying enclosure standards before they can bring in their eggs.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) led the unsuccessful charge on Capitol Hill to preempt California’s law, and now Missouri is taking the lead in federal court. On Monday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued (pdf) in U.S. District Court Fresno Division of the Eastern District of California to guarantee access to the state’s lucrative market.

California consumes 9 billion eggs a year. The nation’s biggest egg producer, Iowa, fills around 30% of the need. Missouri is second, gobbling up 6% of the market or 540 million eggs. California produces 56% of its own eggs.

Koster argued that the roomier cages required for California hens, approved by state voters in 2008, couldn’t be extended to other states, which the Legislature did in 2010. He called it a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which gives the federal government primacy in trade issues. The laws take affect in 2015.

A Missouri AG press release said California’s law “encroached on Missouri’s sovereignty.” Koster said, “If California legislators are permitted to mandate the size of chicken coops on Missouri farms, they may just as easily demand that Missouri soybeans be harvested by hand or that Missouri corn be transported by solar-powered trucks.”

The Humane Society, which was the leading proponent of Proposition 2 in 2008, says the California demands amount to leaving the birds enough space to reduce the incidence of salmonella, and make it easier to keep the cages clean of excrement, flies, rats and disease.

The lawsuit laid out a dual threat to Missouri. Farmers can either “incur massive capital improvement costs to build larger habitats” or walk away from California. The first option would raise the price of Missouri eggs and might make them too expensive for any other markets. The second option might very well put a glut of eggs on local markets.

Either way, Missouri thinks California is monkeying around with the flow of goods across state lines and its lawsuit says the “clear purpose [is] to protect California farmers from out-of-state competition.”

Missouri also disputes the science underlying California’s hen-cage laws. The lawsuit specifically rejects this statement from AB 1437, the bill that extended California standards to imports: “It is the intent of the Legislature to protect California consumers from the deleterious, health, safety, and welfare effects of the sale and consumption of eggs derived from egg-laying hens that are exposed to significant stress and may result in increased exposure to disease pathogens including salmonella.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) thought otherwise when it urged Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the legislation. He did.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:         

Missouri Attorney General Sues California over Eggs (by Mike McGraw, Kansas City Star)

Missouri AG Challenges California Egg Law (by David A. Lieb, Associated Press)

Missouri Sues California over Chicken Regulations (by Reid Wilson, Washington Post)

Congress Takes on California over Food Safety Laws (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

State of Missouri v. Kamala D. Harris (United States District Court Eastern District California Fresno Division) (pdf)

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