CALIFORNIAN egg producers are bracing for controversial changes to animal welfare regulations which have boiled over into an interstate trade dispute.
The Proposition 2 ballot was passed in 2008 at the Californian general election and is due to be implemented on January 1 next year.
The proposition passed with 63 per cent of Californians voting in favour of it and 37pc against.
Officially titled the “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act", it sets out new standards for keeping hens, swine and calves raised for veal in confinement to ensure their freedom of movement isn’t restricted.
Californian egg farmers and other producers have been busily upgrading their facilities to ensure their production processes comply with the new rules so animals can stand up, sit down, and spread their wings or limbs without touching the enclosure or other animals.
Ballot initiatives are used in some US States empowering citizens to vote on legislative proposals that then become law.
The initial Proposition 2 initiative was sponsored by the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) which is a leading, multi-million dollar not-for-profit group and key protagonist in pushing for improved animal production methods, including via undercover operations in US abattoirs.
However, California launched counter legislation in the wake of Proposition 2 making it illegal to sell eggs produced outside the State that don't adhere to the same animal welfare standards.
According to egg industry sources, an estimated 12 to 15 million eggs per day are transported into California to feed the State’s expanding population of 38 million people, while the State is also home to 19 million laying hens.
Given the size and economic power of California’s egg imports, the protective legislation has been challenged by attorney generals in other States; an action initiated by the Missouri Attorney General.
According to the Missouri lawsuit, that State exports about a third of the 1.5 billion eggs it produces per year, into California.
Other key egg producing States like Iowa, Nebraska, Alabama, Kentucky and Oklahoma have backed the legal challenge.
But the HSUS isn’t cracking under pressure and has launched another motion in the US district Court to dismiss the lawsuit from those States, trying to overturn California’s new rules.
HSUS chief counsel for animal protection litigation Jonathan Lovvorn says those States are trying to force their sub-standard eggs on California consumers, “even though the California legislature has declared such eggs to be repugnant to the State’s values and a threat to public health”.
California Farm Bureau Federation communications manager Dave Kranz said Proposition 2 threatened to send local egg producers out of business, “especially if egg producers from other States were able to continue farming with less expensive methods and haul those eggs into California”.
But that’s why the Bureau backed the new laws ensuring eggs sold in California must be produced according to the Californian standard.
“There’s an active legal fight right now to try and overturn that law and we’re defending it by saying that’s the only way our farmers can stay in business because people still shop with their wallets” he said.
“Everybody says they want a certain standard and products raised in a certain way.
“But when it comes down to it, if there’s a carton of eggs that’s twice as expensive as the other carton of eggs, consumers are likely to pick the cheaper carton.
“And certainly, eggs from producers in other States are likely to be cheaper if they don’t have to comply with Californian standards.”
Mr Kranz said the HSUS sponsored also initiative contained “vague” details of the new animal welfare requirements, making it difficult for farmers to comply.
“There’s no set standard of what it means to be in compliance, so farmers are in a position where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” he said.
“If they don’t change their housing standards they can’t operate anymore but if they do, they are not guaranteed that what they consider to be in compliance may actually be in compliance.
“They may then find themselves subject to a lawsuit by the animal welfare organisations, who don’t agree with what they’re doing so it’s all very complicated.”
CFBF Federal Policy Division director Ria de Grassi said the new regulations left some practical questions unanswered for egg producers.
“Does every chicken in the egg laying house have to be able to spread their wings simultaneously, do a pirouette and a complete 360 and not touch another hen?” she said.
“But does a chicken ever fully extend their limbs or do chickens on farms ever do that simultaneously and turn around?”
Ms de Grassi said the new rules also contained penalties like a fine not exceeding $1000 or imprisonment in the country jail for up to 180 days or both, per animal, which also raised some serious questions.
Oregon Department of Agriculture director Katy Coba said her State followed California’s Proposition 2 by passing new legislation to implement the same requirements for hen cage sizes.
She said anyone wanting to sell eggs or other products in Oregon must match those same requirements.
“We’re watching that challenge in California very closely because if it is indeed viewed as an unacceptable restriction on interstate trade, then our law will also be challenged,” she said.
Ms Coba said none of the other State attorney generals were currently challenging Oregon’s laws.
“I don’t think too many people know we have the same law as California - and California is also very big,” she said.
“However, we share the border with California and all of the things that happen in California tend to migrate north, including the people.
“A lot of issues that start in California, like with the HSUS, we tend to be the next State on the list.”