Newspaper column: States cry foul over California egg law

California law requires cage sizes for chickens, eve for imported eggs.

Californians want chickens to be able to stretch their wings, no matter how much it stretches the cost of eggs.

Back in 2008 those animal-loving folks to the west of Nevada approved a ballot initiative that required the size of cages for egg-laying hens in that state to be increased by about 75 percent by January 2015. Failure to comply with the law was punishable by a $1,000 fine and 180 days in the county lockup.

But as January 2015 approached, the egg farmers in California started to squawk, saying complying with the law would cause their eggs to cost at least 20 percent more to produce than eggs imported from other states, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

So, California lawmakers passed a law saying that any eggs sold in that state had to comply with the state cage size requirements.

From January 2015 to January 2016 the price of eggs in the U.S. shot up more than 10 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index, though the prices have dropped since.

But now Nevada and a dozen other states are crying foul and asking the U.S. Supreme Court to wring the neck of the California egg law because it violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and a federal law requiring uniform standards for eggs sold in interstate commerce.

According to the 109-page lawsuit, the California regulations are costing egg consumers nationwide more than $350 million a year.

In announcing several weeks ago that Nevada was joining the legal challenge, Attorney General Adam Laxalt declared, “This is yet another example of California’s unreasonable and over burdensome regulations affecting everyday Nevadans. By forcing out-of-state egg producers to modify their production facilities to comply with one state’s eccentric preferences, California has inflated egg prices for every consumer in the nation, including in Nevada. We are asking the Supreme Court to limit California’s ability to set unreasonable and unique agricultural standards that affect other states like Nevada, while doing little to help further any tangible concerns in California.”

The other states involved are Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin. All have Republican attorneys general except Iowa.

According to the suit, California produces about 5 billion eggs a year and imports another 4 billion from other states, greatly affecting the interstate egg market.

The lawsuit quotes a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case on the significance of the Commerce Clause to the nation’s founders. That opinion stated: “The few simple words of the Commerce Clause — ‘The Congress shall have Power … To regulate Commerce … among the several States …’ — reflected a central concern of the Framers that was an immediate reason for calling the Constitutional Convention: the conviction that in order to succeed, the new Union would have to avoid the tendencies toward economic Balkanization that had plagued relations among the Colonies and later among the States under the Articles of Confederation. … The Commerce Clause has accordingly been interpreted by this Court not only as an authorization for congressional action, but also, even in the absence of a conflicting federal statute, as a restriction on permissible state regulation.”

The suit further quotes the federal law that states for “eggs which have moved or are moving in interstate or foreign commerce, no State or local jurisdiction may require the use of standards of quality, condition, weight, quantity, or grade which are in addition to or different from the official Federal standards …”

As the suit clearly argues, that law “preempts any contrary state or local laws under the Supremacy Clause, both expressly and impliedly.”

The California law is blatantly protectionist in its design. In urging the governor to sign the law the California Department of Food and Agriculture stated: “This will ensure a level playing field for California’s shell egg producers by requiring out of state producers to comply with the state’s animal care standards … Without a level playing field with out-of-state producers, companies in California will no longer be able to operate in this state and will either go out of business or be forced to relocate to another state.”

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in California’s favor, so it is up to the Supreme Court to unscramble this mess.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.