In 2008, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 2, a measure that would change the egg farming industry. The California egg law required new living conditions for egg-laying hens. Specifically, hens were required to have room to stretch out their wings, lie down, stand, and turn around in their cages. While the complete law did not focus solely on hen living conditions, it quickly came under fire by farmers.
California’s egg farmers stated that the increased costs to meet the new standards would make them non-competitive. Farmers out of state would not be held to these same standards, and therefore would have lower production costs. In 2010, the California Legislature passed AB 1437. This effectively made it a crime to sell shelled eggs in California from farmers that did not meet the Proposition 2 standards. The standards officially went into effect in 2015.
Multiple challenges from multiple states
Over the years, the California egg law has been challenged by other states. In 2016, a federal appeals court rejected claims from 6 states that the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. The court ruling stated that the suit failed to show that the California egg law would affect more than individual farmers.
Missouri attorney general Josh Hawley is leading a new legal effort against the law. The state of Missouri is among 13 states that are attempting a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, this time the lawsuit armed with new studies, ones that correlate the California egg law to increased consumer costs.
California egg law driven by health and safety concerns
Salmonella has been an ongoing concern within the egg industry. Studies have shown that contamination risk is influenced by the egg production and handling process. However, the numerous pathways of contamination are highly varied. From the cramped conditions addressed by Prop 2, to existing infections within hens, there are many ways for Salmonella to get inside eggs.
As consumers have demanded more eggs, and ‘unprocessed’ or ‘raw’ foods, the risk of Salmonella contamination in popular foods has increased. It is these risks that form part of what drove California to craft Prop 2.
The push for humane animal treatment
Health and safety concerns have driven industry regulation. However, in recent years the treatment of animals has become a significant part of public discourse. Shock videos produced by various advocate groups has led companies to drop farms from their supply chain. People have changed their eating habits based on these efforts. The California egg law is as much an emotional issue as it is a discussion of fair interstate trade.
It is an expensive concern to a multi-billion-dollar industry. In Oklahoma, one of the states confronting the California egg law, the industry was worth over $79 million in 2016. Much of this value is from exporting those eggs to California. Prop 2 has forced farmers to invest in new infrastructure, or lose out on a market of 9 billion eggs per year.
It is a concern that every state in this new lawsuit has raised. However, to people who are concerned with humane animal treatment, these concerns do not outweigh the ethical shortcomings they are focused on.
No guaranteed solution in sight for proponents and opponents of Prop 2
With Att. Gen. Josh Hawley’s push to have the case skip directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, Missouri’s egg industry and its allies are hoping to reverse a 2016 rejection by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, that original suit was filed well before the 2015 deadline originally set by Prop 2. Despite originally citing concerns that consumers would see price increases of eggs, the 9th Circuit dismissed the case without prejudice.
While this means that further lawsuits are possible, it highlights the challenges the egg industry faces. It could take months or years before the Supreme Court decides to hear the case. In that time, new economic and health studies could reinforce their case. Alternatively, they could just as easily provide support to California’s law. Inevitably, regardless of how the lawsuit turns out, the California egg law promises to be at the center of discussion and debate for some time.
Special thanks to Radio Law Talk for providing additional information resources for this article. Radio Law Talk is hosted by Frederick Penney of Penney & Associates, Denise Dirks, and Todd Kuhnen. Along with a panel of regular contributors, Radio Law Talk podcasts focus on current legal issues and trends, as well as general topics related to state and federal law.