WASHINGTON — Taking aim at California's pioneering efforts to bolster animal safety, the House Agriculture Committee has moved to block states from imposing their own standards for agriculture products on producers from other states.
That could jeopardize California laws to protect chickens as well as one to ban foie gras, which took effect this month.
The panel's amendment to the farm bill was a response to a California law, which will take effect in 2015, that requires that all eggs sold in the state be produced by hens held in cages big enough to allow the chickens to stand and spread their wings. The amendment, if it becomes law, would prevent the state from applying this standard to eggs from other states.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who represents the country's leading egg-producing state, said he introduced the amendment because the California law and others like it "scrambles and creates a patchwork quilt of state regulations."
"If California wants to regulate eggs that come into the state, fine," King said. "But don't be telling the states that are producing a product that's already approved by the USDA or the FDA how to produce that product."
He said that the California requirement violates the commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over interstate commerce issues.
The amendment says that states that object to the way an agriculture product is produced in other states cannot block the sale of that product.
King's amendment was approved this week as the committee debated, in a marathon session, the once-every-five-years farm bill. The farm bill cleared the agriculture committee early Thursday morning.
The King amendment sparked outcries from animal rights advocates and warnings that it could have far-reaching consequences beyond the treatment of birds.
"It is exactly the sort of thing that's done at midnight on a Wednesday night," said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "We've never seen anything that would so profoundly threaten the ability of states to protect consumers, farmers and the environment."
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said the measure could nullify California's foie gras ban. That ban makes it illegal to raise, sell or serve the product, which is derived from force-feeding of birds.
And it could prevent states from enacting laws that would, for example, prevent the sale of food produced by forced labor, he said.
"The scope of this amendment is so absurdly far-reaching that it's even difficult to talk about," Pacelle said.
The measure was debated for about 20 minutes, with Democrats Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Kurt Schrader of Oregon the only members to speak against it.
Cardoza, who is retiring at the end of this term, said voters "made an awful mistake" when they passed the egg law in November 2008. Schrader also questioned the wisdom of the California law. But, defending California voters' rights to pass laws governing activity in their state, both pleaded with their fellow committee members to back away from the amendment.
The pleas didn't have any effect as members representing the South and Midwest expressed frustration with California's activism on agricultural and environmental issues.
"It is driving us crazy, because these things come to our states … and then they're trying to pass them in our states, and we don't want them," said Minnesota DemocratCollin C. Peterson, the ranking member on the committee.
"California can't make your state do something," Cardoza fired back. But undermining California's law would hurt the state's economy, he said.
If "you can put small cages in Nevada, right across the border and our state can't prohibit it, then that's a problem for us," Cardoza said.