Court’s Decision Upholding California Egg Law Could Mean Better Conditions on Egg Farms Nationwide

Court’s Decision Upholding California Egg Law Could Mean Better Conditions on Egg Farms Nationwide

A recent court decision in California is paving the way for safer and more humane treatment of farm animals.  

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by six other states raising constitutional challenges to California legislation governing the sale of eggs. The law dates back to 2008, when California voters overwhelmingly approved the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, a ballot initiative prohibiting confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to move around freely or fully extend their limbs.  At the behest of California’s own egg farmers, the statute was amended in 2010 to also require specifically that all eggs sold in California be produced by hens housed in enclosures that complied with those requirements. The law seeks to protect California consumers from the adverse health and safety effects of eggs produced in conventional battery cage systems, which allow hens virtually no freedom of movement and in which over 90 percent of U.S. egg-laying hens are currently housed. The sale of such eggs will be prohibited in California once the statute goes into effect January 1, 2015.

Missouri, joined by five other egg-producing states, commenced a lawsuit in early 2014 raising constitutional challenges to the California law. The lawsuit alleged in part that the new legislation unduly burdens interstate commerce by forcing out-of-state egg farmers to incur substantial costs to come into compliance with the California standards or be shut out from the largest market in the country.

Rather than reaching the substantive constitutional challenges, Judge Kimberly Mueller dismissed the case for lack of standing, finding that the lawsuit, while purportedly brought on behalf of all citizens in the plaintiff states, really only stood to protect and benefit the egg farmers of those states.

Although the Court did not directly address the question of whether a state may require that products imported from other states adhere to particular animal welfare standards, the outright dismissal of the lawsuit is certainly a significant victory for advocates of safer and more humane farming practices. If the decision is allowed to stand through any possible appeals, states seeking to protect big agricultural interests within their borders will be hard-pressed to judicially challenge other states’ agricultural standards. In the nearer term, it is also likely that many farmers across the country who have not already done so will come into compliance with California’s stricter regulations and phase out battery cage systems to continue participating in the country’s largest egg market. The decision could also have far-reaching implications for other conventional factory farming practices around the country if California passes further legislation applying the standards of the 2008 Act to meat or poultry products imported from other states as it has already done with eggs.  

At least one other recent case involving related issues indicates that the fight for more humane farming practices is moving in the right direction. Just last week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge by foie gras sellers and producers to a 2004 California law banning the sale of foie gras and other products derived from force-fed birds. The Supreme Court left in place the lower court’s determination that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims and its express recognition of California’s interest in discouraging practices it deems cruel to animals. While the case has not yet been concluded, it, too, suggests that animal welfare and health and safety regualations like California’s foie gras and egg laws are here to stay, even when they affect farming practices across the country.