Thursday, March 6, 2014

Egg Battle Lands In Court. High Stakes for Farmers and Animal Welfare Group

Is an egg worth going to court over? How about two billion eggs? When hundreds of millions of dollars and the prospect of increased regulation are at stake, the State of Nebraska joined with chicken farmers with a defiant “Yes!”

Many Midwestern farmers make no secret of their disdain for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In 2008, the group successfully promoted a California ballot initiative regulating how chickens are raised at large production facilities. 

The rules banned housing birds in cages so small chickens are unable to move about. HSUS claims there is “…ample evidence that restriction of normal movement…in cages causes physical harm” and disease. The poultry and egg industries strongly disagree.

The chicken rules could have remained exclusively a California concern, but the law expanded two years later with a ban on out-of-state eggs laid by chickens in pens not conforming to California law. It goes into effect in 2015.

That launched an interstate egg fight. Missouri filed suit in federal court last month claiming it’s an unconstitutional restriction of interstate commerce. Lawyers argued California can’t ban Missouri eggs just because rules governing one set of chicken farmers differ from another.

Nebraska joined the fray on March 5. Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning (a freshly-minted candidate for governor) told farmers at the state’s big ag conference that papers would be filed in support of the lawsuit.

“This is also about the precedent this sets for our beef, swine and dairy producers,” Heineman said in his prepared statement. Bruning called the California law an “unconstitutional attempt to dictate farming practices in our state.”

Kevin Fulton, a Nebraska rancher who represents HSUS in the state responded in a press release distributed by the group. “State lawmakers and agriculture departments have real work to do, and the underlying basis of this lawsuit is to allow the federal government to trump state law as it wishes on agriculture policy,” Fulton is quoted as saying. 
There’s plenty at stake for both sides.

For the Humane Society a victory would sustain one of its major animal welfare campaigns.

For the poultry industry it’s a battle against unwanted regulation and keeping open a major market for fresh eggs. Missouri claims one third of the eggs from that state were sold in California. The American Egg Board ranks Nebraska ninth in the nation for the number of laying hens (9.2 million hens, more than 2 BILLION eggs a year!). That’s more hens than Missouri and a $180 million business in Nebraska.

The case is months away from being heard at trial.