Missouri sues California over chicken regulations

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Whichever came first, both the chicken and the egg will be subject to a forthcoming federal lawsuit.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (D) said Tuesday morning he has filed a federal lawsuit against the state of California over the Golden State’s new regulations on enclosures that house egg-laying hens. The regulations, Koster alleges, violate the constitution’s Commerce Clause.

California voters in 2008 passed a ballot initiative that require larger enclosures for egg-laying hens. Farmers in California worried the new rules, which would increase their costs, would put them at a competitive disadvantage with egg farms in other states, so the state legislature passed a measure in 2010 to require out-of-state producers to comply with California rules.

That, Koster says, is unfair to his state’s egg producers.

“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,” Koster said in a statement.

California farmers must begin complying with the cage law beginning in 2015, under the terms of Proposition 2. The legislature requires out-of-state farmers to begin complying with the same rules by the end of that year.

Koster’s office estimated that Missouri egg producers would have to pay $120 million to expand the size of their coops, and that production costs would rise 20 percent. Almost a third of the 1.7 billion eggs Missouri produces on a yearly basis goes to California.

“This is not an agriculture case, and it’s not just about egg production,” Koster told the Kansas City Star last week. “It’s about the tendency by California to press the boundaries of intrusion into an area protected by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

The lawsuit is the latest effort by a Midwestern politician to fight food regulations in California. Big agricultural interests backed an amendment to the farm bill, authored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), that would have superseded state laws that set local standards for production; the amendment, which is not included in the final version of the farm bill, was aimed squarely at California regulations.

Several egg producers have opted to stay out of the Missouri case, and no other state has joined the lawsuit. But other industries, especially beef and pork producers, are concerned that animal-rights activists who pushed the California egg law will expand their fight.

Proposition 2, the 2008 measure that passed by a wide margin among California voters, also regulates the size of cages used to house calves and sows. Food producers are worried that the number of regulations coming out of California — 358 in recent years, according to a 2010 article in the Chapman Law Review — will have devastating national impacts.

Among other regulations, California restaurants that serve olives, bread and chicken must warn consumers they sell cancerous products. “The nation’s breadbasket now wants us to fear bread,” wrote Baylen Linnekin, the article’s author.

Missouri doesn’t rank among the top 10 states in terms of egg production, according to the American Egg Board. Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California are the five states that produce the most eggs. In 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, each U.S. consumer ate an average of 247.7 eggs, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association reported.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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