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PD Editorial: California egg law in a legal scramble

  • Hens in colony cages at JS West and Companies' Dwight Bell Ranch in Atwater. (PETER DASILVA / New York Times)

An article on Tuesday's front page proclaimed that “hens in California are living the good life.”

That “good life” is enough space to stand up, lie down and extend their wings without touching another bird.

You're forgiven if that's not your vision of luxurious living, but moving from file-drawer-size battery cages to roomier colony cages is a big step up for most leghorns and Rhode Island reds.

California egg farmers have been converting to colony cages since voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008. Beginning next year, when the initiative takes full effect, more spacious cages will be mandatory.

A law passed in 2009 extends the same requirement to anyone who sells eggs in California.

An Iowa congressman tried and failed to undermine the 2009 law via the farm bill passed by Congress last month. The latest challenge is a federal lawsuit filed by Missouri's attorney general and joined by five other states.

“This is bigger than a case about egg production and bigger than a case simply about agriculture,” Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster told the New York Times. “These laws raise an important commerce clause question that affects many, many industries nationally, and I believe the courts need to respond.”

Koster's right about one thing — this is about more than egg production.

It's also about cattle ranchers and hog farmers, who pushed Congress to act and support Koster's lawsuit. They oppose legally mandated standards for humane treatment of their animals. If they can't block them outright, they at least want to limit the scope of any state laws setting such standards.

California isn't the only state that enforces standards on agricultural products grown elsewhere.

During the farm bill debate, a group of university professors identified 176 state laws that extend to commodities brought in from other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures also offered examples, including a dozen states that regulate firewood to protect their forests from imported pests.

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