WASHINGTON – Catfish. Chickens. Cockfights.
These were among the issues watched in California during congressional deliberations on a new farm bill. The long-awaited legislation finally cleared Congress on Tuesday. Here's a look at how the issues were resolved:
Cockfighting: A provision of the bill would make it a federal crime to attend an animal fight or bring a child under age 16 to one.
California banned cockfighting in 1905, but it has remained a problem in the state. Last year, authorities raiding a cockfight in Stockton found 95 birds — and a 9-year-old boy left behind by his father, who was among a crowd of spectators who fled when sheriff’s deputies arrived. In August, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies seized about 300 birds in a suspected cockfighting ring in the Antelope Valley.
The bill would provide prison terms of up to one year for attending an animal fight and up to three years for “knowingly” causing a minor under age 16 to attend.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the measure would represent a “major crackdown on the whole cast of characters involved in this barbarism.”
Proponents of the measures say it will allow law enforcement to pursue spectators who drive the market for animal fighting. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the measure would ensure that organizers of animal fights “cannot easily escape prosecution by hiding in the crowd when law enforcement arrives, since now everyone in the crowd will be breaking the law.’’
Catfish: Congressional negotiators rejected an effort, led by Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey, to block a new catfish inspection program that she said threatened to cost jobs in her district and ignite a trade war with Vietnam, an important trading partner with California.
She called Congress’ failure to repeal the program “very disappointing” but pledged to continue to work to end the “duplicative” program. Her district includes seafood processors concerned that the new inspection program could lead to higher costs and limit supplies of catfish from abroad, including a Vietnamese variety known as pangasius.
Seafood is currently inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, but Congress agreed to subject catfish to a more rigorous inspection regimen, conducted by the Department of Agriculture.
Supporters of the new inspection program have argued that it is an important food safety measure made necessary after Chinese seafood was found in 2007 to include drugs banned in U.S. fish farming. But critics say it was pushed by Southern lawmakers to protect their catfish producers from foreign competition. Efforts to kill the new program faced strong opposition from a key player in the farm bill negotiations, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“It seems that catfish is one bottom feeder with friends in high places,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday, calling the catfish inspection program “trade protectionism.”
Chickens: Congressional negotiators rejected an effort to prevent California from requiring that eggs sold in the state be produced under standards that give hens enough room to spread their wings.
But while California dodged a bullet from Congress, Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster announced the filing of a lawsuit in federal court in California challenging the state’s law as an unconstitutional “burden on interstate commerce.”
“This case is not merely about farming practices,” Koster said in a statement. “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.”
California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 2, requiring state chicken farmers to give egg-laying birds enough room to stand and spread their wings.
State legislation passed two years later added a requirement that, when the initiative takes effect in 2015, eggs sold in the state come from farms that meet the California standards.
“As the second-largest exporter of shell eggs to California, Missouri farmers face a difficult choice,” the lawsuit says. “Either they can incur massive capital improvement costs to build larger habitats for some or all of Missouri’s 7 million egg-laying hens, or they can walk away from the state whose consumers bought one-third of all eggs produced in Missouri last year.”
The lawsuit contends that the California law will raise the cost of eggs in Missouri and make them too expensive to export to any state other than California or flood Missouri’s own markets with half a billion surplus eggs that would otherwise have been exported to California, causing Missouri prices to fall.
There was no immediate response from California’s attorney general.
During the farm bill’s consideration, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) had persuaded the Republican-controlled House to include in its farm bill a measure to prohibit a state from interfering with another state's production of agricultural products. He contended that the California law infringed on Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce by imposing conditions on farmers who want to sell eggs in the nation's most populous state.
But opponents of King’s measure countered that it could nullify scores of states laws. Some Republicans argued that it ran contrary to their party’s longtime advocacy of states’ rights.