• Attorneys general in six states are supporting a lawsuit against California’s cage-free requirement for egg-laying hens, going into effect in 2015. 
  • Other states argue the law violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, because it requires the hens laying eggs that are imported into California also comply with the law. 
  • The Humane Society and some farmers are on board with the new requirements while others — including those in pork and cattle — worry about how the costly change could put a damper on the animal farming industry.
  • “We can’t have our farmers and ranchers at the whim of California’s voters …”
This Sept. 10, 2008, file photo shows chickens huddling in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif. The future of state laws that regulate everything from the size of a hen’s cage to safe consumption of Gulf oysters may be at stake as farm bill negotiators work to resolve a long-simmering fight between agriculture and animal welfare interests. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez File)

This Sept. 10, 2008, file photo shows chickens huddling in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif.  (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez File)

Five states have joined Missouri in a lawsuit against California, contesting a provision in its state law that requires hens laying eggs to be “cage-free,” or at least have larger spaces.

California voters passed approved a proposition in 2008 that’s set to go into effect next year, banning “extreme confinement” cages of animals within the state. So why are other states getting involved, in addition to other animal farming industries?

As it turns out, the law extends to eggs sold within California, not just to the chickens raised there. All eggs would have to come from hens who also have enough room to spread their wings — even if the chicken is in a different state.

Missouri launched a lawsuit against the state last month, with Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Alabama joining it Wednesday, alleging that it violates interstate commerce, according to the Wall Street Journal. For Missouri’s egg farmers to bring their systems into compliance with California law, it is estimated to cost them a total of $120 million.

“We can’t have our farmers and ranchers at the whim of California’s voters, and that’s why we filed the lawsuit,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning told NPR.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris countered that if this lawsuit were successful — achieving what previous legislative amendments failed to do — “it will limit the ability of voters in any state to enact laws they deem in their best interest.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, echoed this sentiment.

“State officials trying to curry favor with agribusiness interests are letting their political grandstanding trump their better judgment about the rights of states to make laws and about the wisdom of having some minimal standards for the care of animals,” Pacelle said.

“It’s just not appropriate to jam six or eight birds in tiny spaces so they cannot move,” Pacelle added. “These states should stop trying to force their sub-standard products on California consumers, even though the California legislature has declared such products to be at odds with the state’s values and a threat to public health.”

California's law, passed by voters, requires chickens to have either larger cages or be free-range. This requirement though extends to care of chickens in other states as well, if they hope to have their eggs imported into California. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

California’s law, passed by voters, requires chickens to have either larger cages or be free-range. The requirement extends to care of chickens in other states as well, if they hope to have their eggs imported into California. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The New York Times pointed out that some in the egg industry in California are either having to close or reduce their flocks in order to come into compliance:

[David Cisneros, chief operating officer of Dakota Layers,] who is based in Los Angeles where the company has its cage-free and other specialty egg business, previously worked for MoArk, the egg division of Land O’ Lakes, which has closed down its California facilities. He said smaller egg farms were closing their doors because they could not afford the new housing systems.

Larger California producers also are reducing their flocks. JS West, for instance, is reducing its flock to 1.4 million birds from 1.8 million, which will cut production to 372 million eggs from 480 million.

Today, there are roughly 19 million laying hens in the state, which [JS West Senior Vice President Jill] Benson estimated would drop to 10 million to 12 million next year. The state already has fewer hens than it needs to meet demand — which is why it imports eggs from states like Missouri.

Benson pointed out to NPR that complying with California’s law gives the birds the ability to “display more of her natural behaviors.”

But others in the animal farming industry worry the provision could apply to them later down the road.

“Logically, the next step is, we should extend our authority on how you produce pork to other states, as well,” Dom Nikoim with the Missouri Pork Association told NPR. “Then is it dairy, is it beef, is it corn? Go down the list.”

Not everyone in the animal farming industry thinks the provision is so bad. Eyad Mallah, general manager of Eggcetera in Missouri, said the company has already been thinking of going free-range with its chickens. If cost per carton went up as a result, Mallah said he thinks consumers would still be on board, KMBZ-TV reported.

In February, the Humane Society asked that Congress pass a federal law about how egg laying hens should be housed.

“If California egg producers want to meet a lower standard than Prop 2, the U.S. Congress must pass comprehensive national legislation for the housing of laying hens,” the release stated. Congress though dropped a provision setting requirements for egg-laying hens in the recent farm bill.

Featured image via Shutterstock. This story has been update since its original posting.