Egg Wars: Why Missouri Wants California's Law Protecting Chickens Overturned

Voters backed the Golden State's law to treat chickens humanely.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Animal welfare groups let loose an audible sigh of relief last week when the controversial King Amendment was dropped from the recently passed farm bill, because it would have dialed back some hard-won standards for the humane treatment of farm animals.

For many advocates, it was one of the bigger sticking points preventing the bill from passing.

Unfortunately for the animal rights crowd, the relief may be short-lived.

The farm bill amendment targeted California’s egg law, known as Proposition 2. The law, which goes into effect next year, mandates that farmers provide enough room for farm animals, including laying hens, to turn around, spread their wings, and lie down. It also protects California egg farmers by barring the sale in the state of eggs that don't meet that standard.

Republican Steve King, the Iowa congressman who penned the amendment, argued California’s law violated other states' rights, especially the rights of his constituents—the Iowa chicken ranchers who produce more eggs than any other state—who are eager to sell their lower-cost eggs in the lucrative California market.

The language in King’s amendment was vague and controversial, and it eventually was dropped from the farm bill, but the sentiment of the proposal caught the attention of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. This week, the fairly new Democrat filed a federal lawsuit against the state of California, saying the state’s voter-approved law violates the U.S. Commerce Clause and encroaches on Missouri sovereignty.

"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.

After Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California lead the country in egg production.

So why is the issue important to Missouri? Of the 1.7 billion eggs produced in Missouri, 540 million make their way to the California market.

“At stake is whether elected officials in one state may regulate the practices of another state's citizens who cannot vote them out of office. When California passes legislation that imposes new requirements or limits on Missouri businesses, it is my job to fight against it," Koster said.

San Diego egg farmer Frank Hilliker, whose family has been selling eggs in the area since 1942, says he can see both sides of the argument.

“It’s a conundrum. This isn’t only about cage requirements but about egg safety and handling," said Hilliker. "We need to protect ourselves, but on the other hand, the capitalist in me says it’s a free market. The consumer should be able to buy an egg from somewhere else,” he says.

But like many California farmers, Hilliker has already made the investment to convert his barns from battery cages to cage-free. In a matter of weeks he expects to have at least one barn compliant with Prop. 2, well before the law goes into effect in 2015.

“This was a huge expense. I had to borrow the money. So, while I do understand the other states want to send their products here, it’s also about a level playing field and about jobs here in California. If the egg industry leaves California, a lot of jobs will go with it," Hilliker said.

The Humane Society of the United States has been a key player in the egg wars. Its work with the United Egg Producers helped open the door to Prop. 2.

The group has long advocated for more humane conditions for farm animals and says the attorney general’s motives may not be so pure.

“Attorney General Koster’s lawsuit targeting California’s laws, at the cost of taxpayers' money, just so he can curry favor with Big Agribusiness, threatens state laws across the country dealing with animal cruelty, agriculture, and food safety,” said Jennifer Fearing, the society's director in California.

Considering California's voting consumers have sided with cage-free chickens, and farmers have already made production changes to comply, other states may find themselves walking on eggshells trying to change laws in the Golden State.