Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road in California? To Avoid the Politics of Cage-Free Eggs

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road in California? To Avoid the Politics of Cage-Free Eggs

Nearly a decade after California became the first state ban the confinement of hens and other farm animals in crowded cages, many farmers and policymakers around the country are still crying foul.

The latest episode in the ongoing saga over California’s chicken law came last Wednesday, when a bill introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) that limits the ability of state and local governments to regulate agriculture was added to the 2018 farm bill. The legislation was King’s response to Proposition 2, California’s “animal rights” ballot initiative passed by voters in 2008, and a related state law that prohibits the sale of eggs that are raised in states that do not adhere to California’s cage rules.

Since 2015, all eggs sold in California must come from chickens raised in an environment where they can fully extend their wings and turn around freely. (Most cage-free hens are raised in aviaries, where they are more likely to get sick and peck each other to death – but at least they can move around.)

King, who has tried to pass a version of his “Protect Interstate Commerce Act” bill for several years, praised the House Agriculture Committee’s decision to include the legislation in the farm bill, stating: “If California, or any other state, wants to regulate how products are made within their borders, they can do so. But Iowa’s producers should not be held hostage to the demands of California’s Vegan Lobby and California’s regulatory agencies.” A vote on the bill in the U.S. House is expected in May.

The legislation is the latest in a series of 10-year old legal and policy battles over California’s chicken cage laws. In 2014, Missouri and five other states challenged the law in court, claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce protections. Although the legal challenge was unsuccessful, more than a dozen states have joined a lawsuit filed last December asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law. In the lawsuit, Missouri, Iowa and 11 other states argue that California’s regulations violate both the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and the federal Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA).

When Proposition 2 was on the ballot in California in 2008, supporters and opponents spent millions of dollars trying to influence the outcome of the vote. A coalition of agriculture organizations and the nation’s largest egg producers organized an aggressive campaign to warn voters about the economic and food safety issues surrounding the initiative.

In the intervening years, however, divisions in policymaking and industry circles over the issue has left an opening for animal rights activists to organize and propose even more extreme measures.

Indeed, the Humane Society and a coalition of animal welfare groups are currently collecting signatures for a 2018 ballot initiative in California that would ban the sale of eggs, pork, and veal from farmers that use cages for their animals. The group has until Saturday to collect 600,000 signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Separately, a group of progressive farm organizations recently launched a campaign against King, arguing that his legislation represents an “attack” on family farmers and rural communities.

Given all of these developments, is it conceivable that California’s egg law will ever be cracked? Or will voters approve another feel-good “all or nothing” measure without considering the policy implications?

There is no question that California overstepped its authority in telling farmers how to raise their animals. Proposition 2 and other unconstitutional legislative efforts to dictate livestock operations hurt producers and consumers alike. California has significantly increased the cost of egg production and emboldened activists in states like Massachusetts, where voters in 2016 approved a ballot measure requiring that egg-laying hens, pigs, and calves raised for veal be raised in a cage-free environment.

What’s missing in the debate is a deeper discussion of the disproportionate impact of cage-free laws on low-income Americans. It might not matter to those advocating for these kinds of burdensome regulations – but it should matter to anyone concerned about hunger and poverty. As a 2016 Wired article points out, the process of transitioning to cage-free can cost millions of dollars and take between 15 to 20 years to complete – not including the amount of time required build a new aviary system.

These costs are ultimately passed onto consumers – including those who can least afford to pay.

Thankfully, this is an argument that the plaintiffs in the new Missouri-led lawsuit have made central to their case. They note that California’s regulations have cost American consumers approximately $351 million per year and that welfare recipients have had to pay $96.5 million more per year for eggs. A separate study found that the regulations increased egg prices for Californians by at least 22 percent.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit or Rep. King’s legislation, the 13 states suing over California’s regulations are doing an important job in establishing the disproportionate economic impact of these and other similarly burdensome laws. Not only are they speaking up for individuals unfairly hurt by these policies – they’re making the case that California’s egg law is not all it is cracked up to be.

Ben Smithwick is Director of Development for the Pacific Research Institute.  Prior to joining PRI, he worked at Fox News Channel’s Los Angeles bureau and for the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.