THE food and agriculture industries are never dull. Wherever you might find yourself in the system, there's inevitably some sort of hullabaloo going on.
Some of the controversies are frivolous. They come and go without ever landing a punch.
However, some issues are highly significant; they matter a lot and have widespread implications.
The latter is precisely where the agriculture industry finds itself regarding California's pending egg production laws.
As a quick review, the state's voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008 mandating that livestock animals must be raised in environments that ensure them the opportunity to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.
The law becomes effective Jan. 1, 2015, and considering that California's egg industry is the fifth largest in the nation, the ramifications are clearly important — but it doesn't end there.
Proposition 2 was really only phase one; phase two occurred when the state's legislative process produced a tandem regulation (A.B. 1437) requiring all eggs sold in California (as of Jan. 1, 2015) to be sourced from supply chains that conform to the same standards established under Proposition 2 — regardless of the state of origin.
In other words, any egg consumed in California, regardless of the state of origin, must be sourced from hens managed in some sort of enriched housing.
Therein enters the controversy. California is now perceived as holding the egg industry in other states captive to its law. That's especially true given the size of the state's population.
Missouri led the way in filing a lawsuit to repeal California's egg production regulations and has been joined in the suit by other states as well.
Some of the principles and challenges surrounding the egg laws are similar to those associated with biotech labeling on foods. That's an issue I addressed last year explaining that states acting autonomously on such laws create complications within the food system that reach well beyond just the state in question (Feedstuffs, Jan. 28, 2013). To recap, I wrote:
"The real cost comes from implementing system-wide traceability and related recordkeeping, instituting supplier verification standards, varying manufacturing schedules, segregating inputs and distributing the final goods. All of that has to occur to ensure integrity, since regulations mandate compliance.
"Let's also not forget taxpayer costs associated with enforcing the regulation.
"However, where costs are concerned, the real nuance involves the realities of the food production and distribution system. None of the considerations listed are localized to just a single state. That's because food isn't sourced from within the confines of a state's borders or even within a single country, for that matter.
"Given the inherent structure associated with food manufacturing and marketing, meeting the requirements of the law in one state will essentially force food companies to broaden their geographical considerations."
In essence, California's new laws hold producers in other states hostage because of the inherent connectedness of the nation's food production system.
The unintended consequences are hugely important.
Chad Gregory of the United Egg Producers recently offered some great observations (Feedstuffs, March 24) about the state-by-state scenario that's taking shape:
"American egg farmers are now preparing to navigate through an unwieldy patchwork of regulations and other laws that will adversely affect their production planning process," he wrote.
"It's legislative and regulatory battles like this that are reshaping the future environment for egg farmers across the U.S. This uncertain future should be of concern to all agricultural industries," Gregory warned.
All of this could be avoided. Differentiation is most effective when left to the free market. If sufficient consumer demand for alternative housing methods does exist, the cause would have been much better served by promotional efforts emphasizing the attributes of such.
Meanwhile, the food industry has sufficient infrastructure to provide traceability that assures customers about the validity of their purchases.
The ultimate outcome — eggs sourced from hens in enriched housing — would be the same. However, the process would sidestep cumbersome regulatory costs, budgets and processes, not to mention potentially lengthy and costly litigation.
That course of action represents a simple, straightforward, bottom-up, market-driven fix, with benefits across every consideration and meeting the needs of all stakeholders.
For that to occur, however, we'd have to forego the hubbub driven by a heavy-handed, top-down, regulatory approach — and for some, that just won't do. As a result, the regulatory uncertainty is indeed concerning for all of agriculture.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.