February 5, 2014

US attorney general contests Californian egg law

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has asked a federal court to strike down a California law set to take effect in 2015 that prohibits eggs from being sold there if they come from hens raised in cages that don't comply with California's new size and space requirements.
Koster said that the California law infringes on the interstate commerce protections of the US Constitution by effectively imposing new requirements on out-of-state farmers.


Missouri's lawsuit was filed in US District Court in Fresno, California. California Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to comment on the suit.


But the Humane Society of the US, which campaigned for the ballot initiative, said in a statement that states have the right to pass laws that protect the health and safety of their residents. Jennifer Fearing, the group's senior state director for California, said eggs produced from hens in "battery cages" have a higher risk of salmonella contamination.


California voters approved a ballot initiative in 2008 that required egg-laying hens, pigs and calves to be raised with enough space to allow the animals to lie down, stand up, turn around and fully extend their limbs. The measure gave farmers until 2015 to comply with the provisions. After voters approved the initiative, concerns were raised that the measure would put California egg farmers at a competitive disadvantage with counterparts in other states.


In 2010, California legislators expanded the law to ban in that state the sale of eggs from any hens that were not raised in compliance with California's animal care standards. The California law cites concerns about protecting people from salmonella and other illnesses. But the Missouri lawsuit said the real intent was to protect California farmers from being put at a disadvantage with their counterparts in other states.


Missouri farmers produce about 1.7 billion eggs annually and sell about one-third of those - about 540 million eggs - in California, according to Koster's lawsuit. He said that makes Missouri the second-largest egg exporter to California, behind only Iowa.


Many of Missouri's hens are raised in tight cages that won't meet California's new standards. Koster said Missouri farmers would have to spend about US$120 million to remodel their cages or forgo sales to one of their most important markets, which could force some Missouri egg producers out of business.


Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue and protection group based in Watkins Glen, New York, was among the organisations that helped fund the campaign for the California ballot initiative.


Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst praised the lawsuit as an important legal challenge. He said the California law, if upheld, could set a precedent in which the biggest states can effectively set agricultural policies for all the states.