California Chickens Ruffle Feathers in Farm Bill Debate

US - California voters have said chickens need more space to live.
calendar icon 14 January 2014
clock icon 5 minute read

According to, California lawmakers say the state's stores can only sell eggs next year from hens raised in roomier quarters, and that's got producers nationwide worried the law will cut into their profits.

This chicken-and-egg dilemma could pose a risk to the rewrite of federal farm and nutrition programs, now nearing completion after two years of negotiations, because one member of Congress wants to resolve the issue with legislation.

"Our founding fathers established what's become a 50-state free-trade zone," Rep. Steve Mr King of Iowa, a Tea Party-backed Republican whose state leads the US in egg production. "We cannot have trade wars started by unconstitutional state legislation that's designed to be trade protectionist."

Mr King said California's policies are an unconstitutional infringement of state commerce and is pushing Congress to overturn the rule using the multi-year farm bill. Mr King is getting support from cattle farmers too, who are worried that if farmers are required to treat chickens better, pigs and cattle will be next.

Animal-welfare advocates to constitutional scholars say Mr King's effort may encourage encroachment on state's rights.

Mr King's plan was adopted into the House version of the farm law that's being reconciled with a Senate version. Under his proposal, no state may impose standards on farm goods brought in from other states that are tougher than federal rules or those in effect where the product originated. The Senate version doesn't have the Mr King language.

The provision could void labeling rules for artificial sweeteners in Iowa, maple products in New Hampshire and farm-raised fish in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and Washington state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which opposes the Mr King amendment.

Farm groups say the measure will prevent interstate trade wars over farming practices. Opponents says usurping state powers could erase laws protecting workers and assuring humane treatment of livestock.

The Mr King plan "would have sweeping effects on classes of statutes and regulations related to animal welfare, food safety, environmental protection, and worker safety," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's biggest animal-welfare organization. "It's not narrowly drawn, it's expansive in its scope, and it's an attack on state's rights."

Mr King's language is one of the final hurdles to getting the farm bill to Congress, which may happen as soon as this week, said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Top negotiators closing in on an accord may throw the issue of Mr King's amendment back to the conference committee to resolve.

The farm bill would be in place for five years and govern subsidies, which encourage the planting of soybeans, cotton and other crops that reduce the cost of materials for commodity processors.

The bill also would subsidise crop insurers and help consumers buy food grocers through food stamps, its biggest expense.

As ballot initiatives backed by the Humane Society of the US increased the amount of space for chickens, pigs and cattle raised for veal, livestock groups have said chaotic rules would disrupt commerce across state borders.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation all back Mr King's plan.

Livestock producers who have spent millions of dollars in ballot efforts and legal fights need protection against initiatives passed in one state that affect livelihoods in others, said Chris Wall, a lobbyist with the pork council in Washington.

Mr King said his proposal is limited to keeping states from imposing their will on others in agriculture. Food safety and other industries would still be protected by their own laws, he said. Opponents are "part of the most intense misinformation campaign I have ever seen on any topic," he said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said the language could trump laws against transporting firewood across state lines to protect forests and trees from pests like Dutch elm disease and Asian longhorned beetle. At least a dozen states, from New York to Oregon, have such rules.

Because "so many interpretations are possible, we believe that an untold number of vital state agricultural laws could be implicated" by the proposal, "including many that protect the health and safety of members of the public," a group of 14 law professors including faculty from Harvard University, Cornell University and the University of Colorado last month.

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