Missouri could soon find itself squarely on the front lines of America’s ongoing food fight.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says he’s going to sue the state of California on behalf of Missouri farmers over the latest in the Golden State’s dizzying array of food regulations.
What has Koster and some Missouri farmers so steamed is a new California law requiring that egg-laying hens get more room in their cages. The rules would apply not just to California but to all eggs imported from other states, starting next year.
And California imports lots of eggs from other states — 180 million dozen a year. Consequently, the rule could cost egg farmers in Missouri and elsewhere tens of millions of dollars in new, roomier cages or lost business.
But in an interview, Koster said his suit is not so much about agriculture as it is about the U.S. Constitution, which says interstate commerce should be controlled by the federal government.
“This is not an agriculture case, and it’s not just about egg production,” Koster said. “It’s about the tendency by California to press the boundaries of intrusion into an area protected by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
The federal lawsuit — which Koster expects to file within weeks — is a shot across the bow in the emerging egg wars, the latest battlefront in America’s continuing, often bitter debate over what and how we eat.
On one side are food activists, animal welfare groups and some small farmers. On the other are larger agricultural interests, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
These larger farm groups see organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded the California egg law, as being on a kind of food jihad.
These “food cops” are out to demonize industrial agriculture and tell farmers what they can and cannot do, the large groups say. As a result, they say, the rest of us could wake up someday in a dystopian world of forced vegetarianism.
Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, called the California law “the moral preenings of the West Coast digestive elite.”
Taxpayers in Missouri should stand behind Koster’s lawsuit and the cost of pursuing it in court, said Hurst, a third-generation farmer from Westboro.
“If this law stands, Missouri egg producers will have to redo their barns at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars or the price they get for eggs in California will go down,” Hurst said. “If we don’t stop it now, where will it stop?”
Whoa, says former Missouri lieutenant governor Joe Maxwell, who calls himself a big fan of Koster.
Maxwell, a farmer and a vice president of the Humane Society, says Koster is just trying to placate industrialized agriculture.
“It’s a very bad move that could cost Missouri taxpayers a bundle,” Maxwell said. “If agriculture groups object to the California law, they should file their own lawsuit.”
For his part, Koster says it’s not about big agriculture — it’s about free trade among the states.
He acknowledged that no other states have contacted him to join the lawsuit. As for the cost, he expects to spend no more than $10,000 in state funds on the case — probably much less.
Maxwell’s boss, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which pushed for the California law, says he is surprised and disappointed by the Democratic attorney general’s stance.
Pacelle sees eating as a moral act.
“We can make choices to minimize the suffering of (food) animals,” he wrote recently. “We can buy cage-free eggs, buy pork that doesn’t come from factory farms, and avoid eating veal and foie gras.”
The humane treatment of animals is a critical component of producing safer food, Pacelle said in an interview.
“There’s a correlation between these kinds of confinement practices and higher rates of salmonella, and state legislators have a right to protect their citizens from that,” he said.
Thanks to the Humane Society’s lobbying power in Washington, Koster’s planned lawsuit may become an important last line of defense against such laws for large agricultural groups.
The Humane Society has so far successfully lobbied against a key amendment that big agriculture had supported in the federal farm bill, which is expected to be approved by the Senate.
The provision, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, would have nullified state laws, such as the California egg restrictions, that sought to set local standards for food production.
While California egg producers initially fought the state’s egg law and lost, egg producers outside the state did not push Koster to file suit. They are mere bystanders in the emerging egg wars, and they aren’t saying much.
Jo Manhart, executive director of the Missouri Egg Council, said the first she heard of Koster’s plans to sue over the issue was when someone from Koster’s office called to ask her how much the new California law would cost Missouri egg producers who sell eggs there.
The egg people have made their own peace with the Humane Society, agreeing three years ago to support more humane treatment of egg-laying hens.
“United Egg Producers is not taking a position … given the varying impact to its members,” said group president and CEO Chad Gregory in a statement to The Kansas City Star.
Moark Egg Co., which has large facilities in Missouri and California, could find itself in an interesting position if Koster prevails. Its Missouri facility could undercut the higher prices that would have to be charged by its retooled California plant.
“We’re going to pass on the opportunity to participate in the interview,” said a company spokesperson.
But there’s another reason egg producers are a little edgy over the egg wars. They have been heavily criticized by other big agricultural producers for allowing the Humane Society to have a say in their production methods.
The beef lobby is especially touchy over the issue, having lobbied heavily in Congress against legislation that would have codified the agreement between egg producers and the Humane Society for improving conditions for hens.
“We believe that those closest to the animals should be the ones to make production decisions,” said Chase Adams, spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
He said those decisions “should not be rigidly codified in legislation.”
“The beef people have tried to torpedo our agreement with the egg producers, even though they are entirely unaffected by the proposed policy,” Pacelle said.
Beef, pork and other large agricultural groups are concerned that once animal welfare groups get their nose under the egg tent, their influence will spread.
Pacelle says that’s an irrational fear: “The last time I checked, cows did not produce puppies or lay eggs, so the beef people should not be involved. … They (cattle ranchers) have this contrived argument. They feel that if we make progress on eggs, we will put this Svengali hold on the American public and make them stop eating meat.”
The campaign for the California law, also known as the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, was bankrolled by the Humane Society and approved 2-to-1 by California voters in 2008.
The law requires that chickens, calves and sows be able to move around in their cages. Egg-laying hens, for example, must have enough room to extend their wings fully without touching another bird or the side of the cage.
It didn’t take long for California egg producers to realize how much it would cost them to comply. It also dawned on them pretty quickly that out-of-state egg importers would be able to undercut them.
That’s when they scrambled to back an amendment to the law that requires all imported eggs to meet the same California standards.
It’s that amendment that has Koster steamed, but it’s not the only one that drives some farmers to distraction.
According to a recent law journal article, California has pursued 358 regulations that “negatively impact many important agricultural and culinary trends.”
The state or local governments “have banned or severely hampered a veritable smorgasbord of foods, including everything from eggs to french fries, foie gras to tacos, raw-milk cheeses to bacon-wrapped hot dogs,” according to a 2010 article in the Chapman Law Review.
A University of California at Berkeley business professor, David Vogel, described the spread of California regulations to other states as the “California effect.”
Specifically, Vogel noted that strict California automobile emission standards have spread over the years to other states and even had an impact on federal and international standards for automobile pollution limits.
Having it both ways
Lots of new voices continue to crop up in the food wars, and one is that of Baylen Linnekin, a food and agricultural law attorney and executive director of a new organization called Keep Food Legal.
Linnekin is staking out a sort of middle ground in the food wars.
“I agree with the Humane Society on some issues, but it’s wise to take the pronouncements of some animal rights groups with a grain of salt,” he said.
For example, he said, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) filed a federal lawsuit several years ago on behalf of a whale at SeaWorld, arguing it should be protected under the Constitution’s anti-slavery amendment (a federal judge did not agree).
Linnekin also is a proponent of states’ rights, he said, adding that any law that restricts the free flow of goods between states is bad policy and unconstitutional.
“Any regulations that restrict food the masses can afford is terrible,” he said. “Any soda tax, for example, is a tax on the poor in the same way that lotteries are. They hurt the little guy and do not do a lot to help the food elite eat any better.”
But he added that some powerful voices in animal agriculture seem to want it both ways.
While those groups support Koster’s suit against California, he said, they also support “ag gag and veggie libel laws” around the country, under which states restrict the videotaping of food production facilities and limit what citizens can legally get away with saying about certain foods –– such as beef in Texas.
“That’s a double standard,” Linnekin said, “and it’s just plain wrong.”