Cage-Free Laws in California and Massachusetts

Do you pay any attention to what voters are deciding out in California? In the past, I think a lot of people have thought what happens in California stays in California. But, as egg, veal, and swine farmers are finding out, that idea isn’t so true anymore.

California passed a ballot proposition a few years ago requiring laying hens, veal, and swine have enough room to lay down and turn around. More recently, in 2018, California passed another ballot initiative which included specifics. It included cage sizes and required that by the year all eggs sold in California be from cage-free hens by 2022. Proposition 12, as it is called, included specific deadlines and enclosure sizes for swine and veal as well. Massachusetts passed a similar ballot measure. Michigan and other states have flirted with similar laws.

Why do California and Massachusetts laws matter for the rest of the country? A number of states banded together to challenge these cage-free laws before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Those states argued that the California and Massachusetts laws violated the US Constitution because the new laws imposed legal requirements on any farmers in any other states which sell into California or Massachusetts. In other words, the laws violate the Commerce Clause, which says (paraphrasing here) that the federal government makes laws that control interstate commerce, while states can make their own laws for intrastate issues. An Iowa farmer who wants to sell eggs into California would have to comply with the California cage standards.

The US Attorney General weighed in, and urged the SCOTUS not to take the case. In January 2019, the SCOTUS issued a very brief notice, indicating it would not hear the group’s challenge of the California and Massachusetts laws. While there may (and likely will) be other challenges to these laws, for now they stand and apply to anyone who wants to sell eggs, swine, or veal into those states.

Iowa passed a different type of legislation last session, requiring grocers who accept supplemental food program benefits (like SNAP) to offer conventional, traditionally raised eggs if they offer eggs from chickens housed in a cage-free, free-range, or enriched colony environment. Iowa is a major egg producer, so this law may be seen as an attempt to protect its traditional egg farmers.

California ballot propositions normally don’t get much attention here in the Midwest. But with these news initiatives, we have a new takeaway. State laws — even state laws adopted hundreds of miles away from you — can affect what you do on your farm.