New California egg law riles chicken producers

The rule, going into effect next year, requires that eggs sold in the state come from hens with roomy cages. Now, 5 states are suing to block it.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 7, 2014 3:11PM
A caged hen feeds at an egg farm in San Diego County
© Mike Blake/ReutersBy Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman, The Wall Street Journal

Five states have joined a lawsuit challenging a California law that would require producers of all eggs sold in the Golden State to house hens in roomier cages.


Officials in those states, all of which have big agriculture sectors, argue the California law violates the principle of interstate commerce, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. They say out-of-state farmers would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to change their facilities to comply with the law.


Missouri's attorney general filed the suit against the California law last month. Officials representing Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Alabama joined it Wednesday.


The law, passed in 2010, would cover all egg producers selling in California, whether the hens are in state or out of state. The rules would go into effect next year.


"It's one thing for them to regulate their own egg producers, but when they regulate the egg producers of the other . . . states, including Iowa, I think it's a clear violation," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview Thursday. 


The Republican signed on to the lawsuit on behalf of his state, along with attorneys general representing the other four states. The suit, filed in a U.S. district court in Fresno, seeks to declare the law invalid and block any enforcement. The states also aim to recover legal costs.


The plaintiffs note that California -- the nation's most populous state -- represents the biggest domestic market for eggs.


California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, intends to "vigorously defend" the law, a spokesman for her office said in a statement Thursday. "If this lawsuit is successful, it will limit the ability of voters in any state to enact laws they deem in their best interest," he said.


In 2008, California residents approved a ballot initiative that would ban farmers from housing egg-laying hens in enclosures that are too small for the birds to lie down, stand up or fully spread their wings. In 2010, state legislators passed a law extending the standards to all producers selling eggs in California.


Roughly eight in 10 egg-laying hens in the U.S. are raised under guidelines from the United Egg Producers, which include 67 to 86 square inches of floor space per bird and enough room for hens to stand "comfortably upright," according to the group, a cooperative that represents owners of about 95 percent of U.S. egg-laying hens. The California law seeks at least 116 square inches of space per bird for enclosures housing nine or more chickens.


Consumers can also buy "cage-free" eggs, laid by hens raised in open barns. According to the United Egg Producers, cage-free production accounts for more than 5 percent of laying hens.


Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, sued to block California's law on Feb. 3, saying it would hurt his state's egg producers, which sell about a third of their eggs in California. Missouri attorneys said in a court filing Thursday that farmers there would face the choice of spending $120 million combined to bring their henhouses into compliance or having to forgo sales in California.


Building larger enclosures for laying hens would mean hefty costs for producers, said Steve Boomsma, 53, co-owner of Centrum Valley Farms in Iowa, which ships about 720,000 dozen eggs a week to California. "But it's the field we're playing in," he said. "If that's what we have to do to sell eggs in California, we will do it."


The expansion of the lawsuit follows a failed effort by U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to add an amendment to the latest federal farm bill that would have banned states from setting mandatory standards for agricultural products sold within that state but produced in others. Congress passed the farm bill last month.


More from The Wall Street Journal


175Comments
Mar 7, 2014 3:32PM
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I've worked at a commercial poultry farm. The conditions are appalling. Anyone who eats meat and then has the audacity to call a hunter cruel is a hypocrite of the highest order.
Mar 7, 2014 3:35PM
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Here is a great idea.  All the egg producers stop selling eggs to California, unless at double the prices.  Let 'em eat cake.
Mar 7, 2014 3:59PM
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No one is requiring egg producers in other states to follow California guidelines. Only if they want to sell eggs in Calif.  With that in mind, I would say the law is valid and will stand the lawsuit test.
Mar 7, 2014 3:46PM
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The Interstate Commerce clause in the Constitution is often abused and misinterpreted. States have rights under Federalism, and California has a right to decide standards for agricultural products sold in the state. The lowest common denominator should not prevail. The lawsuit has no merit. 
Mar 7, 2014 4:06PM
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ALL chickens should have ample room to roam! That is how they did it 50 plus years ago before all these greedy factory farms started up! Crammed into a space that's all dark and wallowing in their own poop, NASTY! Our meat USED to come from all the small farms and milk from the family owned dairies that were all over the place. Now only a few exist. Free range meat and free range eggs are just the way to go! It needs to be encouraged!
Mar 7, 2014 4:05PM
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NoDemorats ... being that you're all about "freedom" ... hopefully you realize that this isn't California telling other states what to do,  It's California exercising their freedom to choose what products they care to purchase.   If CA wants eggs from chickens kept in larger cages ... that's that's their perogative.   If producers don't care to provide a qualified product - that's fine too.   The market will sort itself out. 

Mar 7, 2014 4:10PM
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What? Oh no! Californians demand that egg-laying chickens can be somewhat (and I stress 'somewhat') comfortable while pumping out eggs for hungry Americans? What the heck is this world coming to!? Oh, the humanity! What about the children!? How can we continue to stuff our faces at Denny's if eggs cost more because their cages are bigger and they're treated a bit more humanely before they go from the breakfast menu to the lunch menu?
 It's about damn time there's a lawsuit demanding that the animals we consume can be treated kindly before we chop them up into pieces for dinner. The farmers have the option to not sell their eggs to California.
Mar 7, 2014 3:58PM
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I am constantly shocked by companies that argue over this sort of issue. Humane treatment of animals should not have to be regulated-it should be automatic. The fact that these companies treat their hens this way in the first place should be a violation. They claim it will cost them millions to comply. since when do they not pass on the cost of business to consumers?

It's time the FDA did it's job and protected consumers and the food we eat form big corporations.

Mar 7, 2014 3:46PM
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don't think of it as a cost think of it as a boom to  manufacturers of chicken cages.  Oh and just pass the cost on to CA wholesalers.
Mar 7, 2014 3:59PM
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When is Cali. going to fall in the ocean?
Mar 7, 2014 3:53PM
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I'm all for the New Law. If farmers in other states don't like it, then they can sell their eggs else where. No one is forcing them to sell to California so they can either comply, eat or go suck their own eggs. Screw the big production Company owned farms.
Mar 7, 2014 3:54PM
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First, California has every right to regulate what products it wants to be imported. If the other states don't want to sell their eggs to California, that is their business. They don't have the right to tell California what it can and cannot regulate for it's residents. This would violate the rights of any state to protect it's citizens.

And, if you think, that treating animals humanely, is liberal, than so be it. We, as humans, should be treating animals with respect, and not with cruelty. If being conservative means, treating animals with cruelty and no respect, than being conservative is another name for a lack of kindness, humanity, and compassion.

Mar 7, 2014 4:11PM
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Screw California. Let them raise their own hens
Mar 7, 2014 5:21PM
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I feel certain the out of state egg producers are not required to sell to the California market. 
Mar 7, 2014 3:44PM
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I have to laugh at this lawsuit.
Sure it is costly to upgrade the facilities, but the cost will be past on to the consumer with an extra margin to make an even larger profit.
We, as consumers,  will whine and complain about the rising cost and buy them anyway.
Then we will talk about the "Good old days," when eggs were cheap.
After all, it is the American way.
Mar 7, 2014 4:51PM
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I only buy cage-free free-range eggs, locally produced.  I don't care what the price is.  The chickens need to be able to go outside in the sunshine when they want and have a nice life.  I've been known to drive out to farms to check to be sure they're being properly cared for.

Mar 7, 2014 4:14PM
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why did the chicken cross the road ? ...... to get out of californicate ....
Mar 7, 2014 4:08PM
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Can we give the entire state to Mexico?
Mar 7, 2014 4:32PM
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I took a job a few year ago in San Diego after the first year I knew I made a big mistake, I couldn't get out of Calif fast enough. The whole state is run by a bunch of air heads and I mean that not in  a fun way. How can a group of people be so F-N stupid. 
Mar 7, 2014 4:28PM
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my grandmother's egg laying hens had a 30X40 foot enclosure and attached to that enclosure was a 15/30 nesting loft.

Those hens laid the biggest eggs, and of course you got pecked when you went to collect in the morning, but it was worth it! they were happy happy happy chickens.  Some days you're the chicken if you stop laying, you become the dinner!  All creatures deserve good treatment!  If you want to pass on the price of making larger enclosures, go ahead, that's your right as the producer. On the flip side the consumer does to have to buy your eggs.  hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm   how much do we pay chickens now anyway?

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