California has a new law, set to take effect in 2015, that bans the inhumane confinement of egg-laying hens, pigs, and veal calves. Missouri doesn't want to deal with these hipster hens. Now, middle-America farmers are trying to force California to accept eggs from their constricted chickens.
And Missouri has a good, if horrible, case...
California passed "Proposition 2" back in 2008. The law banned cages that were so small that the animals couldn't turn around, lie down, or stretch their limbs. It's hard to understand people who don't think these basic humane regulations are good. Even if you are excited to eat these delicious creatures, you have to be a dick to want them tortured on their way to your plate. And California knows something about dicks who torture out-of-state birds.
The California law survived a constitutional challenge from California farmers who didn't want to pay the extra costs for the improved cages. A federal court in California said, "the mere fact that Plaintiff dislikes or disagrees with the policy or language of Proposition 2 is not sufficient to sustain a Constitutional challenge." The Humane society, to say nothing of chickens and pigs and calves everywhere, approved.
But a new constitutional challenge from the state of Missouri is more problematic. It turns out that a third of Missouri's eggs are sold in California. California can decide how their own farmers treat their animals. But California also passed a law saying that all eggs sold in California have to meet Proposition 2's standards of confinement. That law is pretty clearly protectionist: California doesn't want their own farmers at a disadvantage when selling eggs, and so they're trying to make Missouri (and any other state) meet California's pricey regulations.
Missouri is arguing that California has no right to dictate to them how their omelets (or Chicken McNuggets) are made. Because the eggs are sold through interstate commerce, the federal government has the responsibility to make laws on the treatment of hens in Missouri that produce eggs for California.
Unfortunately, it's not a bad argument. The interstate commerce clause is there to prevent states from engaging in exactly the kind of protectionism California seems to be doing. But it's the kind of constitutional argument that could lead to a horrible legal result. Pretty much everybody besides the powerful farm lobby and the odd psychopath agrees that hens should be allowed to stretch their freaking legs a little before their children end up in the buffet line. And California farmers shouldn't have to suffer just because they live in a slightly more evolved state than Missouri.
A court might be able to wrangle a "public safety" exception out of this cockfight. Most people understand that this law is better for the animals, but California also argues that the law achieves a greater level of health and safety for egg consumers. I'm no scientist, I don't know what kind of egg safety problems are associated with torturing chickens. But if California can get their experts together, they might have a chance.
Granted, we do in fact have a federal institution that is supposed to be in charge of food safety. Missouri argues that California's "safety" arguments are pre-empted by the Federal Egg Products Inspection Act. Pre-emption essentially means that if the federal government has made a call here, the states can't make a different one. Missouri is compliant with all federal standards of safety
Nothing really prevents the states from demanding more safety. California might be able to argue that its people want a better quality of egg than the rest of the country, and that their voters are allowed to demand any eggs sold in-state to meet those requirements.
But the safety of California residents will be what's at issue here, not the basically humane treatment of the hens. California can't force Missouri to act right, even if it's hard to understand how Missouri farmers can be so cruel.
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