California egg law, pro-chicken, is unfair to Missouri farmers, lawsuit alleges

California egg law mandates that eggs sold in the state, as of next year, can't come from chickens who live in 'factory' cages. Missouri is suing in federal court, arguing that California is interfering with interstate commerce.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Some of the thousands of eggs produced each day by caged hens are seen stacked up at an egg farm in California, July 29, 2008.

Is California forcing its concerns about animal welfare onto heartland states, via its recent law mandating that eggs sold within its borders must be laid by chickens who live somewhere other than in the small “factory” cages from whence most Americans get their sunny-side-ups?

That’s one question at the heart of a state-versus-state lawsuit filed Monday by Missouri's attorney general, Chris Koster, whose state sells millions of eggs to California every year.

Missouri filed the lawsuit in federal court when it became clear that the new US farm bill would not include an amendment to clip California’s aspirations to force other states to adopt what it sees as more animal-friendly farm practices. Congress finally approved the farm bill on Tuesday, after months of tumultuous negotiations.

Mr. Koster argues that California’s egg law, which the state legislature passed in 2010 to boost a popular 2008 ballot initiative that required all California egg producers to keep their chickens in larger cages, violates the US Constitution’s interstate commerce clause, which is designed to establish a level playing field for all states when it comes to selling goods across state borders.

The suit comes amid mounting complaints about California and what critics say is its outsize effect on agriculture policy beyond its own borders. The state has approved 358 new farm regulations in recent years, and some food producers around the country argue that it is in effect supplanting the federal role in setting farm policies.

Missouri echoes that idea in its lawsuit. If California is allowed to mandate that only certain eggs can be sold in the state, it “may just as easily demand that Missouri soybeans be harvested by hand or that Missouri corn be transported by solar-powered trucks,” Koster argues in the complaint.

California gave in-state producers several years to buy new, larger cages, an advantage not extended to Missouri and other states that ship eggs to the Golden State, Koster notes. The California egg law is set to take effect next year. 

Missouri officials say the new coops will cost Missouri producers $120 million and will raise their production costs by 20 percent. Missouri chicken farmers currently sell one-third of their annual yield of 1.7 billion eggs to destinations in California. The average American eats 247 eggs a year.

Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, the state that produces more eggs than any other, fought during farm bill negotiations to curb California’s clout. Congress opted to kick the issue to the courts so that it could move the huge farm bill across the finish line and onto President Obama's desk.

"Any state, including California, is free to regulate, even overregulate their producers, but not to regulate the other 49 states,’’ Representative King said.

If the ruling ultimately goes against California, its effect has the potential to be widespread – perhaps limiting states' ability to require things like certain labeling of farm-raised fish, to ban certain kinds of pesticides, and even to establish rules managing the eradication of invasive pests.

California, however, has previously succeeded in defending similar animal-welfare laws. Its ban on foie gras (the enlarged livers of tightly penned and force-fed ducks), for instance, was found to be constitutional.

“Ideally, laws that sensibly protect farm animals, consumers of agricultural products and the people who work in these industries would all be federal laws, uniformly governing all 50 states,” writes the Los Angeles Times editorial board. “But it hasn't worked out that way. States have put in place health and welfare laws that set reasonable, up-to-date standards when the federal government has lagged behind.”

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