Playing Chicken With the Farm Bill

How one congressman’s Farm Bill amendment aims to keep the ‘factory’ in his state’s farms.

Steve King feels the same way about California's cage-free egg laws as he does about DREAM-ers. (Photos: Pete Marovich/GettyImages, normanack/Flickr)

Aug 2, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

Early in July, when the House of Representatives passed its version of this year’s Farm Bill, it included an amendment that could put a halt to some factory farm fixes that have been in the works for the last few years.

It has been dubbed the King Amendment, after Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa who’s been in the news lately because of his racist statements about immigrants. The amendment “prohibits states from enacting laws that place conditions on the means of production for agricultural goods that are sold within its own borders, but are produced in other states.”

And while that might sound jargon-y, the amendment appears to be aimed specifically at stopping California from moving forward with laws that would make industrial-scale egg production cleaner, safer, and more humane.

You see, back in 2009, a record number of Californians voted for a ballot measure—called Prop 2 at the time—aimed at giving laying hens (as well as sows and veal calves) in factory farms more space. The vast majority of the eggs on the market come from eggs raised in tiny battery cages, and the law ultimately called for moving them out of cages, into spaces where they could “turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.”

Around eight million voters approved of that idea, and Prop 2 won with 63 percent of the votes. The state’s egg industry—which is under a lot of pressure to produce millions of eggs cheaply—pushed back. Not only did the state’s big egg producers file lawsuits, but they also started talking about picking up camp and moving to states where there are fewer regulations. Then, in 2010, the California legislature passed AB1437, which would require all eggs sold in California to be produced in compliance with Prop 2.

Both laws are slated to go into effect in January of 2015, and that’s where King’s Farm Bill amendment enters the picture: Around one-third of the eggs eaten in California come from out of state. And Iowa—King’s home turf—just happens to be the biggest egg-producing state in the country. In other words, there’s a lot at stake, both in terms of what happens in California and what kind of precedent this sets nationally.

“If California wants to regulate eggs that come into the state, fine,” King told the L.A. Times recently. “But don’t be telling the states that are producing a product that’s already approved by the USDA or the FDA how to produce that product.”

While protecting his state’s factory farms is King’s primary goal, his amendment could have other, equally disturbing effects. Depending on how it’s interpreted, a law that restricts control of agricultural products across state lines could have much broader implications—such as undoing recent shark fin bans in California and Hawaii, walking back fire safety-rules for cigarette makers (tobacco is an agricultural crop, after all), and more.

On the Environmental Working Group’s AgMag blog, executive director Heather White wrote about the much wider impact the bill could potentially have.

This sweeping provision would severely undermine all states’ authority to set standards for environmental protection, food safety or animal welfare. It would apply to genetically engineered food labeling, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) regulation, antibiotics use in meat and other local and state food and farm regulations.

The King amendment’s definition of “agricultural products” would cover fruits, vegetables, plants, dairy, fish, livestock poultry and forest products, including processed and manufactured forms. The amendment could void state regulations on forestry, fish farming or water quality—even if the citizens of that state passed a ballot initiative demanding government action.

Of course, because the language is so vague, it’s hard to know how the amendment would play out. But Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), sees it as a “very dangerous” proposal.

He says the Senate agriculture committee—which has no such language in their version of the Farm Bill—is aware of the concerns King’s amendment is raising. But, Shapiro adds, “At this point, it’s a needle in the haystack. And it’s important that this not get lost in the larger discussions of the Farm Bill, such as food stamps and agricultural subsidies.”

The Farm Bill won’t be hashed out in earnest until early September (in hopes of passing something before the current bill runs out September 30), but Shapiro sees the next month as critical to stopping the amendment.

“It’s the kind of thing that could get traded in the final hours of the negotiation,” he says. And quite a few decisions about the final Farm Bill will likely be hammered out in August, especially on the staff level. “That’s why it’s important this amendment starts getting the attention it deserves now,” Shapiro adds.