In 2008, California voters went to the polls and voted in favor of Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act. The proposition's biggest effect, by far, was that farmers raising egg-laying hens would have to raise them in cages that would allow them to "lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." However, it was not clear whether eggs from other states would have to follow suit.
In 2010, AB 1437, a state law that grabbed the majority vote in the Assembly and Senate before snagging Governor Schwarzenegger's signature, made it clear that all states selling eggs in California would have to comply with the cage regulations required in Proposition 2. To give everyone time to adjust, the law wouldn't go into effect until January 1st, 2015.
Well, we are now two months into this new reality, and other states aren't egg-cited about it. (Sorry.)
Last week, six states (Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alabama, and Iowa) filed an appeal declaring AB 1437 unconstitutional. Their argument is that the law was never about protecting consumers. As J. Andrew Hirth, deputy general counsel for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, writes in the appeal:
No scientific study conducted to date has found any correlation between cage size or stocking density and the incidence of salmonella in egg-laying hens. Additionally, the most recent studies establish there is no correlation between cage size or stocking density and stress levels in egg-laying hens.
Rather, the law was about leveling the playing field for California egg growers, which is putting egg producers in their state at a disadvantage and, most importantly, affecting their bottom lines:
Take restaurant and food service eggs, which are sold in boxes containing 15 dozen eggs. A box of those eggs that went for $8.50 a year ago are now fetching $53. There are also reports of eggs diverted from the California market being sold elsewhere and bringing egg prices down in other areas.
One of the groups named in the appeal as "intervenor defendant appellees" -- a role they got by being the sponsors of the original law -- is The Humane Society of the United States. Predictably, they believe this lawsuit doesn't have merit.
"California was right to ban the sale of inhumane and unsafe eggs," says Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society, "and we're going to defend California's rights to defend its citizens and animals."
Not only that, but Shapiro contends AB 1437 has something even more powerful than a moral argument on its side: It's got legal precedent.
"California has a law regarding milk sales in the state," says Shapiro. "You have to have under a certain level of somatic cell count in the milk." Somatic cell count (or SCC) is a scientific word for saying "pus." For milk to be legally sold in the U.S., it has to be below an SCC count threshold. The national rate is currently 750,000 cells/mL, but in California, state law has lowered that standard to 600,000 cells/mL for milk sold within the state. This new egg-related lawsuit, then, is just a repeat of the fight over that law.
"They're claiming California is trying to regulate other states' agriculture," says Shapiro. "But nobody's forcing those other states to sell to California."
Which isn't to say that Shapiro and company are at all surprised by the move. "To be honest, every law we pass ends up being litigated," he says. "We always expect the animal abuse industry, when they lose, to go to court over it."
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