Five states join Missouri in egg lawsuit

Six states in suit produce more than 20 billion eggs per year, 10% of which are sold to California consumers.

The attorney generals for the states of Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Alabama, and Kentucky and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad have joined in on a lawsuit that challenges egg production standards in California. Together with Missouri, these states produce more than 20 billion eggs per year, 10% of which are sold to California consumers.

Missouri filed the initial complaint Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Fresno, Calif. 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 in 2008 approving a ballot initiative called Proposition 2. Proposition 2 was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, and is viewed by some in agriculture as an effort as another attempt by the organization to harm agriculture.

In addition to these regulations, the California Legislature in 2010 approved legislation (AB 1437) that requires all eggs coming into California for sale to meet the same egg production standards. The states claim the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow California voters to dictate the business practices of other states’ egg producers. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution prevents states from regulating economic activity outside of its borders.

Andrew Hirth, deputy general counsel for the Missouri Attorney General, shared that the amended complaint was filed March 5. Hirth said the next status conference with the Judge is on June 12.

Gary Baise, lawyer at OFW Law, added that the additional states joining the efforts will not increase the pace as to when the court will make a 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 shared that the new states signing on to the complaint signifies the importance of the case, “which is good for ag.”

The complaint outlines that egg producers in the states who’ve 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 they can walk 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 state in egg production, producing over 14.4 billion eggs per year. Approximately 9.1% of those eggs – 1.07 billion eggs per year – are sold in California. They export more eggs to California than any other state, with 30% of eggs imported into California are produced in Iowa.

Another 13% of California’s imports—almost 600 million—come from Missouri and comprise one third of all eggs produced in Missouri annually. The complaint cited that University of California Poultry Specialist Don Bell identifies Alabama, Nebraska, and Kentucky among the states whose eggs account for another 5.6% of total California imports.

Intent of bill

The complaint outlines that Iowa famers have more than 51 million egg-laying hens. Ninety percent of those hens are housed in the same conventional cage-systems currently in use in California and throughout the United States, and 10% are in enhanceable 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 stated.

The suit also lays out 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 agriculture department colleagues that recognizes 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,” Ibach said. “But the California regulations appear to be more about protecting the market for California farmers.”

There is concern that the California egg production standards create a precedent that would negatively impact Nebraska agriculture, said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. “This is about protecting Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers from the potential for regulatory burdens that hamper interstate trade. It’s not only about protecting our egg producers. This is also about the precedent this sets for our beef, swine and dairy producers.”

“We welcome the five states joining our effort,” said Missouri AG Chris Koster. “This case is not just about farming practices. At stake is whether elected officials in one state may regulate the practices of another state’s citizens, who cannot vote them out of office.”

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