EDITORIAL: Farm Belt states play legal chicken vs. California

FresnoMarch 10, 2014 

A handful of states are taking issue with California law that requires chickens be raised in a humane manner.

ROBERT F. BUKATY — AP

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? An age-old question to be sure, but in California, the chicken comes first. In Missouri, it seems to be 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 cages look, it's not a difficult decision. Cages not much larger than chickens themselves are putrid and unsafe.

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.

Missouri's agribusiness lobby pushed the lawsuit because it didn't want to be forced to convert chicken operations to larger cages or free-range facilities. Koster lays an egg when he argues that California is violating interstate commerce freedom. The Bee's editorial board opposed Proposition 2. But California voters had every right to pass it, which they did. The sky hasn't fallen.

The five other states that have joined Missouri's lawsuit -- Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Nebraska -- 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. 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, which evidently is what Missouri is willing to do to protect chicken farmers.

California gets one-third of its eggs from Missouri. If Missouri and the other states ganging up on California want to keep that business, they should drop the lawsuit. 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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