Our View

Our View: It’s not smart to play chicken with California

March 8, 2014 

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? An age-old philosophical question to be sure, but in California voters have decreed that the chicken comes first.

In Missouri, it’s a different story.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed a lawsuit against California and Proposition 2, the 2008 ballot measure that mandated that chickens be raised in a humane manner. If you’ve ever seen how chickens raised in tiny battery cages look, it’s not a difficult decision. The cages are not much larger than the chickens themselves and they sometimes become putrid and unclean, creating unsafe conditions for the bird and for humans who eat their eggs.

Arguments based not only on animal rights but also on public health are compelling enough to advocate for larger spaces for chickens. Salmonella can spread quickly in the confined henhouses that are still legal in Missouri. The risk of a salmonella outbreak increases twentyfold in these antiquated facilities. About 140,000 Americans are sickened each year by salmonella, a disease that preys readily upon children and the elderly.

Missouri egg producers – who sell about a third of their eggs in California – pushed for the lawsuit because they don’t want to be forced to convert their chicken operations to larger cages or free-range facilities. Koster lays an egg when he argues that California is violating interstate commerce freedom. This has already been adjudicated and states have been found to be within their rights to establish safety procedures and standards.

The Bee opposed Proposition 2 back in 2008. But California voters had every right to pass it, and they did. And guess what? The sky hasn’t fallen.

In fact, Modesto-based J.S. West, which has new, modern henhouses in Stanislaus and Merced counties, has found that their chickens are healthier and more productive. The eggs cost less than a penny more each than they used to, but the company is not unhappy with its investments.

The five other states that have joined Missouri’s lawsuit – Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Nebraska – all have various agricultural restrictions in place that could be similarly challenged in court under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

With reference to the Commerce Clause, chickens have played an interesting historical role. In a 1935 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, justices ruled that diseased chickens could be shipped across state lines, a direct challenge to President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act. Eventually, this view of the Commerce Clause has been eroded through multiple rulings, and now states have the right to enforce health and sanitation practices regarding their food processing.

Unfortunately, they also have the right not to ensure public health within their borders – which evidently is what Missouri is willing to do to protect a small group of chicken farmers.

If Missouri and the other states ganging up on California want to keep our state’s business, they should drop the lawsuit instead of clucking about the gross unfairness of it all. Missouri would be better off modernizing its own henhouses instead of employing a bunch of lawyers to play a game of chicken with the Golden State.

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