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Farm bill should make more room for hens across the country

June 17, 2013|By Carla Hall
  • Hens confined in cramped "battery cages" in 2006.
Hens confined in cramped "battery cages" in 2006. (Farm Sanctuary )

U.S. House of Representativesis gearing up for a big egg fight as early as Wednesday when it takes up the proposed farm bill and  whether states can regulate how agricultural products outside its borders are manufactured or raised.

This all stems from Proposition 2, the California initiative that outlawed tiny, cramped cages for egg-laying hens and was approved, overwhelmingly,  by voters in 2008.  Even food animals deserve a certain amount of humane care before they -- or their eggs -- end up on our plates.  The measure  applied only to California egg farmers — who argued it would be costly to retrofit and would force them to raise their egg prices — while out-of-state producers still using the old cages could sell their eggs across state lines to Californians at a cheaper price.  So the state wisely passed a bill two years later that set standards for all eggs sold in California.  All would have to come from farms that gave hens roomier quarters and met California’s standards for egg farming.

Now, a farm bill amendment from Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa (where, you guessed it, they produce more eggs for sale than in any other state) would prohibit any state from putting conditions on any other state’s agricultural production methods beyond what the federal government already requires.  Doing otherwise would interfere with interstate commerce, supporters say, which only the feds can regulate.

Meanwhile, the Denham-Schrader amendment to the farm bill would simply set a national standard for more space for egg-laying hens in all the states.  It’s supported not only by the Humane Society of the U.S. — which was the prime force behind Prop. 2 — but by the United Egg Producers, a vast national cooperative of egg farmers.

It’s an interesting question whether one state — say, California — can set standards for the farming of an agricultural product in another state if it will be sold in California.  Is that interfering with interstate commerce?  Maybe, if the California law were whimsical and said that all out-of-state producers must paint their hen houses poppy red the way farmers in California do before you can sell here.  But that’s not what’s going on here.  California passed a law that requires all farmers selling eggs in the state to raise the level of care of hens from cruel to tolerable.

Of course, there are federal animal welfare statutes that govern the agricultural industry, and those laws change — slowly — informed by research and better methods of caring for farm animals.  California  — and several other states — are just ahead of the curve on egg-laying hens.

And now it is time for the federal government to raise its standards for egg-laying hens.  And that will be the best way to insure adequate care of factory farm hens across the country — without raising the specter of  states trying to regulate one another.  This is not about commerce. This is about animal cruelty.  The House should accept the Denham-Schrader amendment.

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