By Stephanie Strom
ATWATER — Hens in California are living the good life. Many can now lay their eggs in oversize enclosures roomy enough to stand up, lie down — even extend their wings fully without touching another bird.
Hens in most other states don’t have it so good. Their conditions, as the head of California’s egg trade group explained, are “like you sitting in an airplane seat in the economy section all your life.”
So if you’re a hen, you want to live in California. Short of that, you want California-size leg room. And that’s precisely what lawmakers in California are demanding of out-of-state farmers who sell eggs in California — setting off a feud over interstate commerce that has spilled over into the farmyard at large.
The Missouri attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block the California egg rules, and at least three other states are considering doing the same. The beef and pork lobbies are also lining up against the California rules in an effort to prevent any new restrictions on raising livestock.
“This is bigger than a case about egg production and bigger than a case simply about agriculture,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “These laws raise an important commerce clause question that affects many, many industries nationally, and I believe the courts need to respond.”
California voters set new standards for hen housing in 2008 when they approved a ballot measure that imposed more generous living conditions for egg layers in their state. When producers complained that the measure created a competitive disadvantage, the Legislature tacked on a law that mandated imported eggs be produced under the same standards.
Those provisions, as well as similar laws going into effect in Michigan, Oregon and Washington State and under consideration elsewhere, inspired a national proposal to require more space for laying hens across the country, but Congress dropped it from the recently passed farm bill. Lawmakers and some companies have been responding to consumer pressure (including from several colleges) for better treatment of animals raised for food.
The state’s egg producers have already spent millions of dollars installing “colony cages,” like those in two of the six barns at JS West & Companies’ Dwight Bell Ranch here. On a recent visit, white leghorn hens craned their necks out of the cages to stare and cluck at strangers, then withdrew to the safety of perches or the privacy of the laying nest, neither of which is available in conventional cages. There are about 60 hens in each cage.
The colony cages are about the size of a Ford F-150 pickup truck’s flatbed, while about 90 percent of the nation’s roughly 280 million laying hens are still in battery cages about as big as a filing-cabinet drawer. California’s egg producers have interpreted their state’s laws, which go into effect Jan. 1 next year, to require 116 square inches per bird, compared to the industry standard 67 square inches.
JS West & Companies, a family-owned business that features a “Hens Live” camera feed on its website so customers can view their birds’ living conditions, has spent more than $6 million installing the new cages. Jill Benson, senior vice president, said she believed eventually all chickens across the country would be raised in such conditions. “For us, it was a decision to invest in the future,” said Ms. Benson, whose great-grandfather, James Stewart West, founded the company. “We looked at moving production out of the state or even out of the country, but in the end decided that this is where the market is heading.”
Missouri, however, contends that California is trying to force the market in that direction, and at least three other states — Nebraska, Arkansas and the nation’s largest egg producer, Iowa — are considering supporting its lawsuit, according to representatives of their attorneys general.
Egg producers are warning that Californians, who consumed an estimated nine billion eggs last year, will almost certainly face higher prices as a result of the rules’ import restrictions and effect on in-state producers. “Come Jan. 1, I’m fairly convinced there is going to be a fairly large shortage of eggs in California,” said David Cisneros, chief operating officer of Dakota Layers, a large egg production company headquartered in South Dakota.
Mr. Cisneros, who is based in Los Angeles where the company has its cage-free and other specialty egg business, previously worked for MoArk, the egg division of Land O’ Lakes, which has closed down its California facilities. He said smaller egg farms were closing their doors because they could not afford the new housing systems.
Larger California producers also are reducing their flocks. JS West, for instance, is reducing its flock to 1.4 million birds from 1.8 million, which will cut production to 12 million eggs from 19 million.
Today, there are roughly 26 million laying hens in the state, about 12 million fewer than it needs to meet demand — which is why it imports eggs from states like Missouri. According to Attorney General Koster’s lawsuit, about 540 million of the state’s approximately 1.5 billion eggs end up in California.
Already, Arnie Riebli, head of the Association of California Egg Farmers, and other producers, said retailers insisted on pricing eggs from hens living in colony cages as if they were cage-free and specialty eggs, even though the new systems are estimated to add only about a penny to the cost of producing an egg — the hens eat more but are slightly more productive and have a somewhat lower mortality rate.
“We have no influence over what they charge, but if more eggs are produced this way, then the price is going to come down,” Mr. Riebli said. “It’s simple supply and demand.”
He is pulling conventional cages out of the barns at Sunrise Farms in Petaluma where he is a partner, and either replacing them with colony cages or simply converting the barns into housing for cage-free and organically raised hens, which are becoming a bigger part of his business.
He fought the new standards initially but had a change of heart after inviting people into his barns to see conditions there first hand. “I brought people in for tours and showed them what we did — and women would break down sobbing,” Mr. Riebli said. “The producers in other states don’t want to hear about animal welfare, but they’re ignoring what’s going on among the public.”
He noted that federal courts in California in general have ruled in favor of animal welfare advocates in other cases challenging state laws aimed at the humane treatment of livestock. Most recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a California law prohibiting sale in the state of any foie gras produced by force-feeding birds, which was challenged as a violation of the interstate commerce clause by Hudson Valley Foie Gras L.L.C. and a group of Canadian producers.
But Mr. Koster is undaunted by those precedents. “I recognize that the California district courts and the Ninth Circuit have not been particularly friendly to this sort of assertion we’re making here, but I also have confidence that will not be the last word on this analysis,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to allow a state to put this type of trade barrier in place in the agricultural arena or any other arena.”