Federal Judge Dismisses Challenge to California Egg Law, Says Big Ag’s Interests Do Not Represent the Public
By Jessica Culpepper
Food Safety & Health Attorney
Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller dismissed a lawsuit brought against a California law prohibiting the sale of eggs from hens kept in battery cages where they can’t move around or spread their wings.
The California law in question stems from a voter-approved 2008 ballot initiative, known as Prop 2, which bans battery cage systems – cages less than the size of a sheet of paper egg-laying hens are crammed six to a cage for their entire lives. The law sensibly requires that birds simply be able to stand up, spread their wings, and turn around without having to touch another hen or their enclosure. The law was not only important for animal welfare, but as battery cages increase the risk of Salmonella and stress the birds’ immune systems, the California Egg Law was also a major victory for protecting public health from the only food-borne illness still becoming more common in this country. The ballot initiative only covered California farmers, but a 2010 state law rightfully extended the standards to all producers selling eggs in the state.
Now, you’d think no one would want to argue against such basic humane standards and protections for public health, but corporations in favor of the more profitable battery cage systems vigorously opposed the law. This suit was not brought on behalf of big ag, however, but rather on behalf of six states that have concentrations of industrial food animal production, under the guise that their citizens would lose hundreds of millions of dollars if they had to comply with the law. Their “citizens”, of course, meaning such lobbyist groups as United Egg Producers and such corporations as Cal-Maine (remember them?)
Luckily, the federal judge dismissed the case on exactly those grounds: the six states lacked legal standing to sue because they could not demonstrate that the California law harms anyone other than their egg farmers. In fact, the Court held that the citizenry as a whole could benefit because the price fluctuations that could occur “may in fact result in lower egg prices.”
The suit was defended by the State of California and interveners The Humane Society of the Untied States. Public Justice signed onto a Center for Food Safety amicus brief that focused on the public health impacts of the law, and the importance of upholding those protections. We were in good company: Food & Water Watch, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Healthy Food Action, and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy all signed the brief as well. While the case was dismissed on standing, and so did not reach those issues, we were proud to support this longstanding effort and join up with advocacy groups continuing to make the important connection between animal welfare and consumer health.
On a personal note, I was a staff attorney at HSUS during the passing of Prop 2 and am filled with pride for my colleagues’ continued hard work to fight for hens and consumers alike. This law not only is the responsible and ethical standard, it represents the wishes of the majority of consumers in California – and evidence shows – the American people. Let’s hope that this is the start to a system that treats both our animals and consumers with more respect and care.