ATWATER, Calif. — 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.
Where the Eggs Are Laid
Some of the country’s largest egg-producing states are opposed to a rule in California that requires roomier cages for hens that lay eggs that are sold there, even if they come from another state.
Total egg production by state
For 2012, in billions
Source: Dept. of Agriculture
Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, and Rhode Island are not disclosed; combined they produce 2.2 billion eggs.
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.”