Farm bill takes aim at state animal welfare laws

Language added to house version of farm bill says state cannot impose certain production standards on agricultural products sold across state lines
Associated Press
Nov 20, 2013

 

The future of state laws that regulate everything from the size of a hen's cage to the safe consumption of Gulf oysters may be at stake as farm bill negotiators work to resolve a long-simmering fight between agriculture and animal welfare interests.

The House Agriculture Committee added language to its version of the farm bill earlier this year that says a state cannot impose certain production standards on agricultural products sold in interstate commerce. The provision, authored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is aimed at a California law that will require all eggs sold in the state to come from hens that inhabit cages in which they can spread their wings — a major burden for egg producers in Iowa and other states who don't use large cages and still want to sell eggs to the lucrative California market. The law goes into effect in 2015.

"Bottom line of it is no state should be allowed to regulate production in other states," King said at a meeting of House-Senate negotiators last month.

But opponents say that depending on how the language is interpreted, the provision could lead to challenges of dozens of other state laws — including some aimed at food safety, fire safety and basic consumer protections.

Concern over King's language has the potential to threaten the entire farm bill, which congressional leaders are hoping to finish by the end of the year.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she has "great concern" about King's language, which is not in the Senate version of the farm bill. Led by the Humane Society of the United States, a wide range of groups including the National Association of State Legislatures, the National Fraternal Order of Police and the Consumer Federation of America are all lobbying against the measure.

King's language cites the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against interstate commerce. He says California's law does just that — imposes its own standards on how producers in Iowa and elsewhere do their business.

Concern about other laws that could be affected is just a ploy by animal rights activists — or, as he calls them, the "vegan lobby" — to discredit his provision, King said.

King said he believes the provision is written narrowly enough so that the other laws would not be affected.

As written, the provision would allow states to regulate their own businesses but would prevent states from imposing "a standard or condition on the production or manufacture of any agricultural product sold" if the product is manufactured out of state and those standards go beyond federal law and the law of the state in which it is produced.

Still, some groups worry the language is not specific enough and could apply broadly:

— Fire safety groups say the language potentially could apply to fire-safe cigarettes that have a reduced propensity to burn when left unattended. Because tobacco is an agricultural product, they worry that state laws requiring sale of these fire-safe cigarettes could be affected if challenged in court.

— Food safety groups say they are concerned that King's amendment could threaten laws like California's statute requiring that oysters from the Gulf of Mexico be pasteurized, a measure that has helped reduce foodborne illnesses in that state.

— Law enforcement groups say they worry that the language could allow for fewer standards on puppy mills. "Animals will be at greater risk of mistreatment," the National Fraternal Order of Police wrote in a letter to King.

— The attorneys general of Arkansas and Mississippi have written letters to Capitol Hill opposing the amendment. "Due to the provision's vagueness and overly broad language, it is unclear exactly what impact the King amendment could have on our state's ability to enforce its own laws and to protect Arkansas businesses and consumers," wrote Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat.

— The National Conference of State Legislatures says the language would "pre-empt" state agricultural laws designed to protect the safety and well-being of farmland, waterways, forests and people.

The genesis of the amendment is a longtime fight between agriculture and the Humane Society, which has pushed states to pass animal welfare laws. In addition to egg farmers, other animal producers — particularly hog producers, many of whom use confinement crates for sows — are trying to fend off efforts by the Humane Society and other animal rights groups. King's home state of Iowa is the top pork-producing state, and some farmers worry they could lose their operations if forced to make the expensive crate changes those groups have sought.

The Humane Society is aggressively lobbying against the King amendment. Wayne Pacelle, the group's president, calls the amendment "an enterprise-level threat to the animal welfare movement."

When writing legislation, "you need to judge the worst-case scenarios to judge the worthiness of a proposal," Pacelle says of the possible impact on other laws.

Though powerful agriculture groups have lined up in support, as have House Agriculture Committee leaders, the amendment has bipartisan opposition — notably from some Republicans who believe it attacks states' rights.

"Just trying to attack the Humane Society I think is very shortsighted," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. "You don't throw out the Constitution because you want to attack one certain group."

King argues he is fighting for the right of states like Iowa to produce eggs and other products as they see fit, and to be able to sell them in a free market. He says the examples of affected laws are overblown, and would not apply because those laws don't dictate specifically how an agricultural product is to be produced.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said he's not so sure, adding that the law could be "subject to multiple interpretations."

"It says it's based on the Commerce Clause but I don't think that's the end of the story," he said.

 

 

Comments

Peninsula Pundit

'King argues he is fighting for the right of states like Iowa to produce eggs and other products as they see fit, and to be able to sell them in a free market.'
They can still sell them in a free market, just not in California.
All I can hear here is the money big ag is throwing at Congress.

Nemesis

"just not in California."

Then it's not a free market. If consumers want eggs from chickens in oversize cages, then they can demand them and, for a higher price, some vendor will respond to that demand. If consumers want a lower price and don't care about cage size, then it's not the state's place to tell them what they can and cannot buy.

If you have strong philosophical preferences regarding how your food is raised and processed, that doesn't justify restricting my freedom to buy and eat what I want. It's your responsibility, not the government's, to satisfy your beliefs. If you don't understand how you can achieve your goals without what amounts to food production welfare, go ask an Orthodox rabbi to explain how his people do it.

Pterocarya frax...

Sure it is a free market. Californians decided they wanted their eggs to come from chickens that are treated a little less cruelly. Clearly there is a demand for such eggs, and if an Iowa egg producer wants in on that action, they can open an egg production facility in California that meets the new requirements there. That would be as you say...a vendor responding to that demand.

What you should be complaining about is morons like Steve King trying to stick the federal government's nose into another states' rights issue.

Nemesis

No it's not. SOME Californians wanted eggs from chickens in big cages, and they got Big Brother to dictate that NO Californians could buy any other kind of eggs. The Iowa egg farmer can meet that demand from ANYWHERE; what he can't do is meet the demand of Californians who don't care what the cage size is, they just want their eggs as cheaply as possible.

In other words, SOME Californians wanted Rolls Royce eggs, so they told the government to ban Hyundai eggs. That's NOT a free market.

As for Steve King, this is one of the few times the Interstate Commerce clause is being exercised properly. California has no place prescriptively dictating production methods in other states. If there's a test that can determine if an egg was laid in a big cage, they can descriptively require that all eggs sold in the state pass that test (although even that technically flies in the face of substantive due process) but they can't dictate what happens with the eggs before they cross the state line. That's what the Interstate Commerce Clause is all about.

Again, if a bunch of PETA fanatics in California care that deeply about the cage size of the chickens that lay their eggs, it's THEIR responsibility to secure a supply that complies with their beliefs, not to ask the government to subsidize their preference by infringing the rights of others to buy according to THEIR preferences.

Since you didn't grasp my meaning, I'll spell it out. Orthodox Jews require meat from animals killed in a very specific manner under rabbinical supervision. They obtain such meat through an ENTIRELY private, free market mechanism with no government participation, and their system has proven more reliable than the government's inspectors.

Peninsula Pundit

Good and Accurate points. +1

KURTje

Urge all to produce as much as they can for themselves. Corporate "farming" is garbage. The best quality comes from those that work with nature 1rst, bottom line second or third.

44846GWP

Amen kURTje, Corporate Factory Farms are disgusting. Buy from small, local farms when you can. Its not about "big cage eggs" or "small cage eggs", its about treating the animals in a humane way.

Nemesis

Without corporate farms, eggs, butter, and meat would be a privilege of what you bleeding hearts like to derisively refer to as the one percent.