Farm bill debate: Eggs, animal welfare, and the ‘free trade zone’ of America

Californians voted overwhelmingly in 2008 to give the state’s farm animals more room — enough to stand up, turn around, lie down, and fully extend their limbs — and two years later, state legislators decided that all eggs sold in California must be produced in similar conditions. The result has been a seemingly unending series of court battles that spilled into the farm bill debate this week.

Republican Steve King from Iowa, the largest egg-producing state, won inclusion in the bill of language to prevent states from regulating agricultural production in other states. Four of every nine eggs consumed in California are imported from other states — 30 percent come from Iowa — so there is midwestern angst over the prospect of having to remodel chicken barns to meet California’s standards.

“Our Founding Fathers wanted to see a free trade zone” among the states, said King, an avowed constitutional conservative who claims Congress alone can regulate interstate commerce. House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, agreed with King. “You would totally Balkanize the U.S. economy,” he said, if states were allowed to set specifications willy-nilly. He described what he called an “outrageous attempt by California to regulate agriculture in other states.”

Not so fast, said Republican Jeff Denham of California, defending a state’s right to protect its citizens or to respond to their wishes. Individual states have dozens of laws and regulations on plant pests and diseases, food safety, fire safety, and animal disease prevention. King’s “Protect Interstate Commerce” amendment is so broadly written that any state could be challenged if it has stricter rules than the federal government on virtually anything. “It would turn our country from an economic engine into a lawsuit factory,” Denham said.

Democrat Jim Costa, whose district borders Denham’s in the Central Valley, maintained that federalism struck a balance of national control and local autonomy. The brief debate was punctuated by readings aloud of the Tenth Amendment — “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people” — and conflicting applications of it to commerce in eggs and other farm goods.

Midwesterners dominate Agriculture Committee membership, so Denham and Costa were steamrolled when a vote on King’s amendment was called.

Farm states are trying to get the Supreme Court to rule on the California law that says all eggs sold in the state must be produced in conditions met by California farmers. In May 2017, the court refused to review a case that had lost at the U.S. district and appeals court levels. In response, two suits have been filed directly with the Supreme Court by similar but not identical groups of agricultural states. Missouri vs. California asks the court to invalidate the egg law. The other suit, Indiana vs. Massachusetts, challenges a Massachusetts referendum, approved in 2016, that sets the same animal welfare standards as California and requires that all foods sold in the state meet those standards.

On Monday, the justices asked the U.S. solicitor general to file briefs expressing the view of the federal government on both lawsuits, reported the news site SCOTUSblog. Even if the court accepts the cases, they would not be heard until the term that begins in October.

For years, the egg industry has put egg-laying hens into so-called battery cages, each of which holds one bird and has floor space roughly the size of a sheet of typing paper. California’s standards, which took effect in 2015, say each hen should get 116 square inches of floor space, an increase of roughly 22 square inches. Livestock producers fear they will face restrictions on so-called sow crates and veal-calf stalls, which closely confine animals.

Meanwhile, California organizers face a May 1 deadline to file at least 365,880 valid signatures to win space on the general election ballot for a vote to require cage-free egg production beginning in 2022, says Ballotpedia.