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Hens win: Out-of-state egg farmers must comply with California law

Hens win: Out-of-state egg farmers must comply with California law
Molting hens are gathered in a conventional, cramped older styled barn. (Los Angeles Times)

It's fair to say that the Missouri attorney general just laid an egg.

In fact, I'm just characterizing what a federal judge wrote in her dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Missouri against the state of California over an impending law that will require all out-of-state egg producers who want to sell their eggs in this state to meet the housing requirements for egg-laying hens that California producers will have to meet soon.

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U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the Missouri attorney general and the other big, egg-producing states that joined the suit didn't have standing in this matter. And, she added: don't come back to court, not on this. The attorneys general of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky and the governor of Iowa joined the suit.

Proposition 2, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2008, mandates that all California egg farmers take their hens out of cages so confining that the birds can barely move and give them enough space to turn around, extend their limbs, lie down or stand up. AB 1437, which was passed in 2010, requires out-of-state producers to comply with the same law if they want to sell eggs in California.

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The suit was first filed last February. Months later, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris brought a motion to dismiss. The Association of California Egg Farmers and the Humane Society of the United States brought similar motions (as "defendant-intervenors").  Mueller granted all those motions.

Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster argued that the law requiring out-of-state producers to meet California standards adversely affected all residents of his state, none of whom had any say about the law. Mueller rejected that argument, saying the state governments "have not brought this action on behalf of their interest in the physical or economic well-being of their residents in general, but rather on behalf of a discrete group of egg farmers whose businesses will allegedly be impacted by AB 1437," she wrote.

It seems odd that Missouri egg farmers, themselves, didn't sue the state arguing that AB 1437 violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.  (The attorneys general did argue that point unsuccessfully.) They might have at least cleared the standing threshold.  However, they probably wouldn't have prevailed in court either.  A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in 2012 against a consortium of out-of-state foie gras producers (including a way out-of-state Quebecois association of duck and geese farmers) who argued that making them comply with California's law against force-feeding ducks and geese was unconstitutional.

All these laws are part of a growing number of measures across the U.S. to institute more humane treatment of factory farmed animals. They are not silly or capricious. They reflect a deepening concern for the welfare of all animals. Plenty of states pass laws for the well-being of consumers as well as animals and they often affect out-of-state businesses that sell to those states. The hen housing law is just one of them.

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Missouri sells a third of its eggs to California. That's a lot of retrofitting of barns. Surely, with the dismissal of this lawsuit, farmers in Missouri—and the other states that joined the suit—will finally get the message that it's time to stop fighting the law and start complying with it.

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