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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Missouri-California Showdown Over Eggs

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Missouri sued California, claiming the "clear purpose" of a state law requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from hens housed in commodious cages is "to protect California farmers from out-of-state competition."

The law, which takes effect in 2015, will require Missouri farmers to either "incur massive capital improvement costs to build larger habitats for some or all of Missouri's 7 million egg-laying hens" or to "walk away from the state whose consumers bought one-third of all eggs produced in Missouri last year," the complaint states.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued California Attorney General Kamala Harris in Federal Court. Koster claims the law, AB1437, violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

"California has placed restrictions on the sale or transfer of a commodity based on production methods that have nothing to do with the health or safety of California consumers," Koster said statement announcing his lawsuit.

With two sly digs at the Golden State, Koster added: "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."

California voters in 2008 passed Proposition 2, which prohibits egg-laying hens from being confined in cages that prevent them from lying down, standing up, turning around or fully extending their limbs. Farmers were given until Jan. 1, 2015 to comply.

"Even before the initiative passed, California farmers, economists, and legislators became concerned that Prop 2. would put their state's egg producers at a competitive disadvantage by increasing the cost of egg production within California," Koster claims in the 20-page lawsuit. "To 'level the playing field' and protect their own farmers from Prop 2's economic consequences, in 2010 the California Legislature passed AB 1437, which requires egg farmers in other states to comply with behavior-based enclosure standards identical to those in Prop. 2 if they want to continue selling their eggs in California."

The deadline for out-of-state farmers also is Jan. 1, 2015, meaning Missouri farmers were given 609 fewer days than California farmers to bring their egg-production facilities into compliance with California law.

Of the 1.7 billion eggs that Missouri farmers produce every year, about 540 million are sold in California. Missouri accounts for 6 percent of the 9 billion eggs consumed in California each year, according to the complaint.

(Conservatively priced at $2 a dozen, that comes to $90 million.)

Current law requires that chickens each be guaranteed 67 square inches of floor space. The new law does not specify the dimensions of hen enclosures, only that they be able to move around and perform certain behaviors, which could mean that each hen requires anywhere from 87.3 square inches to 403 square inches, depending on how the law is interpreted, Koster claims.

Because most of Missouri's hens are raised in cages that will not meet the new standards, they will be forced to spend an estimated $120 million on improvements or give up California sales, according to the complaint.

"The first option will raise the cost of eggs in Missouri and make them too expensive to export to any state other than California. The second option will flood Missouri's own markets with a half-billion surplus eggs that would otherwise have been exported to California, causing Missouri prices to fall and potentially forcing some Missouri farmers out of business," according to the complaint.

The Humane Society's national president Wayne Pacelle backed the new law when it was passed, calling it "an important step in protecting animal welfare in a way that will also improve food safety for consumers across California. Californians have made it clear that they don't want unsafe eggs from hens crammed into cages, and we applaud the Legislature and governor for heeding this call."

But Koster says the problem with the law is not limited to farming.

"At stake is whether elected officials 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," he said in the statement.

Koster wants the law declared invalid for violating the Commerce Clause, or alternatively, because it is pre-empted by the Federal Egg Products Inspection Act.

He is assisted by Sherrie M. Flynn with Coleman & Horowitt in Fresno.

The California Attorney General's Office did not immediately return a request for comment.

(Courthouse News reporter Joe Harris in St. Louis contributed to this report.)

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