Even after being told last week that they don’t have standing to sue in federal court, six Midwest egg-producing states aren’t likely to give up either battery cages for their laying hens nor the big California market.
Battery cages are housing systems for chickens, laying hens, and various other types of poultry production systems which are used by most egg producers in the U.S. Originally designed for disease control with mechanisms to remove eggs, deliver feed and dispose of manure, they’ve drawn criticism for cramping the birds.
In November 2008, California voters approved Proposition 2, which, effective Jan. 1, 2015, set standards for confining farm animals. The state assembly amended Prop. 2 in 2010. In 2012, the University of California – Davis estimated that changing the hen housing infrastructure to comply with Prop. 2 was going to cost egg producers $ 385 million.
Meanwhile, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, favored to win easy re-election for his sixth term, promises to keep “fighting for the state’s agricultural industry.” Iowa is the nation’s largest egg producer.
An Oct. 3 Des Moines Register story carried the headline: “California egg law may lead to ag war between the states.” It noted that the new California law will require at least 116 square inches of space per hen, which is slightly smaller than a sheet of legal paper (8.5 by 14 inches). The current industry standard is 67 square inches, or a little smaller than a 10-by-7-inch rectangle.
For a while, it appeared that the chicken cage issue was going to go away in a big national compromise. That was in July 2011, when the United Egg Producers (UEP) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) entered into a deal to work together on a national cage standard.
It was thought at the time that the industry group and the group usually at the forefront of opposition to large-scale animal production would bring a dramatic end to this lengthy dispute. The much-delayed Farm Bill was to be the vehicle for the UEP-HSUS deal.
But it didn’t happen, and California’s Prop. 2 was later amended to protect that state’s own egg producers by mandating the larger cages for any eggs sold in the state, even if they were produced elsewhere. That’s why the six Midwest states, led by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, went to federal court in early 2014.
However, Judge Kimberly Mueller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled Oct. 2 that they had failed to show that Prop. 2 as amended harmed the general public in their states rather than simply posed potential harm to some egg producers.
“It is patently clear plaintiffs are bringing this action on behalf of a subset of each state’s egg farmers, not on behalf of each state’s population generally,” she wrote in her decision.
“We disagree with the federal court’s opinion that Missouri lacks standing to defend its businesses and consumers against burdensome economic regulation imposed by out-of-state legislatures,” Koster spokesman Eric Slusher said.
While the six states did not gain traction in the courts this time due to the judge’s call on standing, they are unlikely to go away. And their main concerns have little to do with Prop. 2′s promise “to prohibit the cruel confinement of farm animals” in California.
The Midwestern egg-producing states are really challenging — much like a foreign trade barrier — Assembly Bill 1437 passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2010. It added three additional sections to the 2008 law.
Under AB 1437, as of Jan. 1, shell eggs for human consumption cannot be legally sold in California unless the involved laying hen was kept in facilities that meet California’s animal care standards.
It’s a requirement that has raised numerous questions, but among the most important is whether California can impose its animal care standards on other states as the price of entry to its market. Also, in the recently dismissed lawsuit, the six states argued that the evidence shows that the real purpose of the 2010 amendments was merely to “level the playing field so that in-state producers are not disadvantaged.”
That quote was from a California Assembly committee report for AB 1437. In other words, the states argued that California was not acting to make food safer nor animals healthier, but to advance its own purely commercial interests.
As to whether cage size does involve food safety, there is also dispute. The six states argued that there is no scientific evidence of a correlation between cage size or stocking density and the incidence of Salmonella in egg-laying hens. AB 1437 advocates, however, claimed that battery-cage eggs are 25 times more likely to harbor Salmonella than eggs from cage-free hens.