At least five states are suing to block a new California egg law from taking effect next year. The law, which requires larger cages for the hens producing eggs sold in California, is being challenged on the grounds that it violates the Constitutional principle of interstate commerce.
The new California egg law requires farmers to keep laying hens in cages large enough for them to sit down, stand up, and fully spread their wings. Chickens are typically kept in battery cages so small and crowded that they can barely move. Animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society believe that the new California egg law will reduce animal suffering and allow chickens to engage in important behaviors such as perching and dust bathing.
Is the California Egg Law Setting a New Precedent?
The egg law was established when California voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008. The law initially applied only to Californian farmers, but farmers complained that the costs of installing new cages would give out-of-state farmers a competitive advantage. Lawmakers responded by requiring all imported eggs to meet the same standards.
Out-of-state farmers are concerned that the California egg law will either cost them millions of dollars or force them out of the largest domestic egg market. Furthermore, they’re worried that the new law will set a precedent for California consumers to regulate the production of other commodities such as pork and beef. In an interview with NPR, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning explained, “We can’t have our farmers and ranchers at the whim of California’s voters, and that’s why we filed the lawsuit.”
Supporters of the law argue that out-of-state farmers are free to seek alternative markets if they don’t want to change their production practices. They believe that California voters have the right to determine what can be sold within their borders.
Price v. Morals
The California egg law represents a battle between the Price and Moral Systems.In many ways, the battle over the new California egg law exemplifies a battle between the Price System and the Moral System. The California voters who voted “yes” on Proposition 2 were motivated by moral concerns for animal welfare. On the other hand, the out-of-state farmers and attorneys who oppose the law have expressed price-based concerns for unencumbered markets. In their view, the California egg law is a barrier to free trade.
A similar battle emerged several decades ago over vehicle emission standards. After the 1970 Clean Air Act established national vehicle emission standards, California lawmakers decided to adopt even stricter standards. Car manufacturers resisted the new laws but feared losing access to one of the largest markets in the United States, so many of them eventually adopted California’s standards. A few years later, Congress voted to adopt California’s emission standards as the new national standard.
California lawmakers prioritized a substantive value for clean air over an instrumental value for lowest possible price. Because of their political power and market size, California helped move the rest of the country toward stricter emission standards.
The “California Effect”
This strengthening of environmental & consumer regulations is known as the “California Effect.” David Vogel, professor of business and political science at UC Berkeley, coined the term after observing that powerful states and nation-states often propel shifts toward stricter collective standards.
It remains to be seen whether the new California egg law will be another example of the “California Effect.” Even if California wins the battle to set their own egg standards, there is no guarantee that other states — or the federal government — will follow suit.