THE attorneys general for the states of Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad have joined in a lawsuit that challenges egg production standards in California.
Missouri filed the initial complaint Feb. 3 in the U.S. district court in Fresno, Cal. The complaint seeks to stop implementation of regulations associated with the size of cages for egg-laying hens.
Regulations were put in place as a result of California voters approving a ballot initiative in 2008 called Proposition 2, which was sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States and is viewed by some in agriculture as an attempt to harm the industry.
In addition to these regulations, California approved legislation (AB 1437) in 2010 that requires all eggs imported into California for sale to meet the same egg production standards.
In their lawsuit, the states claim that the U.S. Constitution doesn't allow California voters to dictate the business practices of other states' egg producers; the Commerce Clause prevents a state from regulating economic activity outside of its borders.
Andrew Hirth, deputy general counsel for the Missouri attorney general, said the amended complaint was filed March 5, and the next status conference with the judge is set for June 12.
Gary Baise, a lawyer at OFW Law, added that the additional states joining the effort will not accelerate the court's final determination. "The court will decide on the facts and the law, which are on our side," he said. "The court will move at its own pace unless the states want an expedited schedule."
Baise noted that additional states signing on to the complaint signifies the importance of the case, "which is good for ag."
The complaint says egg producers in the states that filed the suit face a difficult choice of either incurring massive capital improvements costs to build larger habitats for some or all of their laying hens or walking away from the largest egg market in the country.
The states involved represent a significant share of U.S. egg production. Iowa is the number-one egg state, producing more than 14.4 billion eggs per year. Approximately 9.1% of those eggs — 1.07 billion eggs per year — are sold in California, exceeding any other state. In fact, 30% of eggs imported into California are produced in Iowa.
Another 13% of California's imported eggs — almost 600 million — come from Missouri, comprising one-third of all eggs produced in Missouri annually.
The complaint cites University of California poultry specialist Don Bell, who lists Alabama, Nebraska and Kentucky among the states whose eggs account for another 5.6% of total California imports.
Intent of bill
The complaint notes that Iowa famers have more than 51 million egg-laying hens, 90% of which are housed in the same conventional cage systems currently in use in California and throughout the U.S. and 10% of which are in enrichable cages.
"The cost to Iowa farmers to retrofit existing housing or build new housing that complies with their updated law would be substantial," the complaint states.
The suit also claims that AB 1437's "true purpose was not to protect public health but, rather, to protect California farmers from the market effects of Prop 2 by 'leveling the playing field' for out-of-state egg producers."
In February, Nebraska Department of Agriculture director Greg Ibach introduced policy at a national meeting of his department colleagues emphasizing that state regulations should not interfere with the free flow of goods between states.
"That is not to say that we shouldn't be able to create restrictions that protect animal health, for example, but the California regulations appear to be more about protecting the market for California farmers," Ibach said.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said there is concern that the California egg production standards create a precedent that would negatively affect Nebraska agriculture.
"This is about protecting Nebraska's farmers and ranchers from the potential for regulatory burdens that hamper interstate trade," he said regarding the suit. "It's not only about protecting our egg producers. This is also about the precedent this sets for our beef, swine and dairy producers."