Egg rules endure challenges

California implements hen housing requirements
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California’s housing requirements for egg-laying hens, which took effect this year, have survived one appeal and face a second.

Eggs sold in the state now have to come from hens given enough room to spread their wings.

Egg prices in the state also doubled from January 2014 to January 2015, but most of that increase was reversed in February. Prices are expected to remain higher than they were in 2014.

In 2008, California voters passed a ballot proposition that set minimum space requirements for egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant pigs raised in the state. In 2010, state legislators passed a law requiring that all eggs sold in California come from hens that live in conditions described by the proposition, under which the hens have room to fully extend their limbs and turn around.

Both measures took effect Jan. 1.

Egg cartons labeled as complying with the California Shell Egg Food Safety regulations (Courtesy of the California Department of Food and Agriculture)

Related state regulations now require that owners of egg-laying hens provide at least 116 square inches of space for each hen living in an enclosure of nine or more hens. Enclosures with fewer birds need to have progressively more space for each bird, with 322 square inches of space required for a hen living alone.

Proposition 2 appeal

In February, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a challenge to Proposition 2. William Cramer, who owns egg farms in California, had argued that the proposition, rather than the regulations, should be overturned as too vague because the proposition did not specify minimum cage sizes for egg-laying hens. The ruling states that the housing requirements are clear enough for an ordinary person to understand and apply.

“Because hens have a wing span and a turning radius that can be observed and measured, a person of reasonable intelligence can determine the dimensions of an appropriate confinement that will comply with Proposition 2,” the ruling states. “While it may have been preferable for Proposition 2 to state that an enclosure for egg-laying hens must provide a specified minimum amount of space per bird, the Due Process Clause does not demand ‘perfect clarity’ or ‘precise guidance.’”

Cramer had filed the appeal after a district court judge dismissed his lawsuit in September 2012.

Legislation appeal

Five state attorneys general and one governor are challenging the 2010 California law in a separate federal appellate case, their district court lawsuit having been dismissed in October 2014. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is leading the suit, with support from the attorneys general from Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Oklahoma and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad.

In the district court ruling, Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Eastern District of California wrote that the state governments had failed to show they had standing to sue on behalf of all citizens of their states. They did not show that the public would be harmed by the changes, and the evidence presented by those states indicated to the judge that the changes would harm only the egg farmers who chose not to comply with California’s law.

The ruling includes an estimate from the plaintiff states that egg production companies would need to spend $120 million on capital improvements to comply with California law or lose the ability to sell in the country’s largest egg market. Court documents indicate Iowa and Missouri, respectively, are the top two suppliers of eggs to California.

Egg price fluctuations

Maro Ibarburu, associate scientist for the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University, said that, in January, egg prices in California had been about double the prices in the Northwest and double the prices paid within California a year earlier. Those prices started declining during the last week of January, and, in February, egg prices were only about 20 percent higher than one year earlier.

Ibarburu said the egg industry is competitive, and he expects companies will work to be able to sell in California. About 12 percent of the U.S. populace lives in California, and Ibarburu said he has seen data indicating egg consumption in the state is proportionate to consumption in the rest of the U.S.

California has the fifth-largest number of egg-laying hens, behind Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, according to statistics from the American Egg Board.

California consumers likely will continue to pay higher prices for eggs, but how much higher is unclear, he said. A report he published Dec. 29, 2014, includes an estimate that eggs could cost about 15 percent more than in prior years, given the increased cost for enriched cages.

Dr. Gregg Cutler, who represents the American Association of Avian Pathologists as alternate delegate in the AVMA House of Delegates, also said he expects eggs will remain more expensive in California than they were before 2015.

He said the egg industry has far fewer hens and is in a smaller number of hands, and he thinks the decline has reduced price competition. The industry has consolidated from more than 10,000 commercial egg producers to fewer than 200.

Egg board figures indicate the 60 largest egg companies sell about 87 percent of eggs produced in the U.S. The number of companies with at least 75,000 hens declined from about 350 in 1994 to about 170 today.