February 4, 2014

Missouri attorney general sues California over eggs

Chris Koster wants to bar new standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens from outside California. He contends the rules would force Missouri farmers to invest in larger and expensive cages or risk losing a lucrative part of the egg market.

A lawsuit filed to keep the California market open to Missouri egg producers aims to stop the state from setting mandates on cage sizes for the chickens in places like Missouri.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued California on Monday to bar costly new standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens from outside that state.

The Golden State is looking to apply rules not just to California chickens, but to those whose eggs are shipped for sale in the state.

That’s a lot of eggs.

The California market swallows 9 billion eggs a year. Of that, Missouri hens contribute roughly 6 percent, or 540 million, Koster says.

Missouri farmers “can incur massive capital improvement costs to build larger habitats … or they can walk away from the state whose consumers bought one-third of all eggs produced in Missouri last year,” Koster said in the suit.

Retooling hen houses to comply with California’s new law, the suit claims, will cause a spike in all egg prices. The new rules are set to take effect in January 2015.

If Missouri producers don’t comply — essentially betting Koster wins the suit — the attorney general said the state will end up with a half billion surplus eggs on its hands, “causing Missouri prices to fall and potentially forcing some Missouri farmers out of business.”

Calls to the California attorney general, named as the defendant in Koster’s suit, were not returned Tuesday.

The Humane Society of the United States pushed for the new California law as a better way to treat farm animals.

Koster filed the suit, Humane Society officials said Tuesday, “to curry favor with Big Agribusiness.”

States should continue to have the right to pass laws that protect health and safety, said Jennifer Fearing, a California-based official of the Humane Society.

She said that includes laws that seek to regulate the production of “eggs from hens (kept) in barren battery cages that are more likely to be infected with salmonella.”

Humane Society officials say 16 studies, including one by the European Union, show caged hens laid eggs with higher salmonella rates.

At issue is how much room a hen has to move around in its cage.

Koster says current cages allow hens about 67 square inches of space per bird.

While the new California law does not specify how much room hens should have, Koster says in his suit that animal behavior experts have estimated the law may require anywhere from 87.3 square inches to 403 square inches per bird.

As for the food safety issue, Koster says there isn’t one.

“No scientific study conducted to date has found any correlation between cage size … and the incidence of salmonella in egg-laying hens,” Koster said.

The Missouri attorney general says California is trying to regulate farming practices nationwide, which he says is a violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

He says California’s decision to apply the law to all other importing states is more about competition than contamination.

Koster hired a California law firm to help in the lawsuit but says he does not expect it to cost Missouri taxpayers more than $10,000.

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