California humane chicken law ruffles feathers in other states

BY Elizabeth Shell  March 7, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT

Photo by Flickr user Pietro Izzo

Photo by Flickr user Pietro Izzo

A California proposition set to go into effect at the beginning of 2015 is at the center of a lawsuit from five states. The proposition mandates eggs can only be sold in the state if they come from chickens housed in cages that meet certain size requirements, larger than the typical industry standard.

The California law requires a chicken coop be 60 square feet (five feet by 12 feet) and hold no more than 60 chickens. At that size, an at-capacity cage would allow one square foot per chicken.

But attorneys general from Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as the governor of Iowa argue that’s too much, and have sued in federal court to block California from imposing the space requirement on eggs shipped in from other states. The lawsuit argues the California law violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“This is not an animal-welfare issue; it is about California’s attempt to protect its economy from its own job-killing laws by extending those laws to everyone else in the country,” Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement. “The citizens of California made a choice for their own state, and when they realized it would harm their egg producers, they made an unconstitutional decision to spread the damage to other States. If California can get away with this, it won’t be long before the environmentalists in California tell us how we must build cars, grow crops, and raise cattle too.”

However, proponents of the “egg law” say it’s simply inhumane to continue stuffing more and more chickens into less and less space.

“[These] are small wire cages where about 95 percent of laying hens spend their entire lives,” wrote Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich in the Huffington Post. “Imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people. You wouldn’t be able to move, so your muscles and bones would deteriorate. Your feet would become lacerated. You would go insane. That’s precisely what happens to laying hens.”

In 2010 California voters agreed with Friedrich’s position on animal welfare and passed Proposition 2, mandating chicken cages to nearly double in size. According to the summary prepared by the California State Attorney general, the proposition “Requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”

Failure to comply could lead to a fine or up to 180 days behind bars.

The Wall Street Journal reports that attorneys for Missouri argue farmers would have to either spend $120 million to make their henhouses compliant or stop sales to California.

Chickens, unlike cattle and horses, are not covered under the Humane Slaughter Act. California represents the largest domestic chicken egg market.