California Chickens Come Before the Egg


The old adage, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” has been answered in California – it is definitely the chicken. The Golden State, already known for its “happy cows” has housing regulations for egg laying hens that go far beyond other state’s enclosure laws. In California, if farmers are in the egg production business, they have to house chickens in oversized colony cages that provide room for the hens to stretch their wings, clamber onto perches and otherwise take advantage of their relatively “luxurious” accommodations. Even though these larger accommodations are still a far cluck from a natural environment, they beat the feathers off other states who house chickens in battery cages where they are tightly confined and virtually immobilized.

California voters made the decision to be kinder to the state’s chicken population voting overwhelmingly for Proposition 2 in 2008 that mandated larger living conditions for egg layers. The proposition mandated larger housing for veal calves and breeding pigs as well. Farmers have until January 1, 2015 to comply with the mandate but remain uncertain as to exactly how much room a chicken needs to meet the new state standards.

Many farmers found the language in the law ambiguous because while it mandates enough space for a chicken to do what a chicken does naturally, it does not provide specific housing guidelines. After the chicken industry challenged the law on three separate occasions, the Superior Court of California in Fresno ruled in 2013 that the law was not ambiguous. The Court ruling stated that just because the law defined “confinement limitations” in terms of “animal behaviors” instead of mathematically or other “precise measurements” this did not make the language “facially ambiguous.”

CaliforniaDespite the ruling, chicken farmers are still scratching their heads at the lack of quantification and some have made the arbitrary decision that a chicken needs 116 square inches to act like a chicken as opposed to the industry standard, which is 67 square inches. Chicken advocates still argue that these egg layers need to have access to free range for any confinement to be considered humane.

In addition to causing a housing conundrum for chicken farmers, the new state standard also put them at a competitive disadvantage with other states that do not impose the same regulations and the resulting additional outlay for larger housing. Thus, in 2010 a second law mandated that any eggs sold in California, including those that were imported from other states, had to come from chickens living under California’s Proposition 2 standards.

This second law has caused several states to file lawsuits against California and just recently, Missouri Attorney General Chris Kostner filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Fresno claiming that California’s egg laying mandates “press the boundaries” of the protections offered by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Kostner points out that if the state of California can mandate how chicken farmers house their chickens in Missouri, there is nothing to stop California from mandating that soybeans in Missouri be “harvested by hand” or the state’s interference of any other farming practices.

There is a financial burden to California farmers with the chicken housing conundrum imposed by Proposition 2 and any additional costs are sure to be passed on to the consumer. There are also complicated interstate commerce legalities to be resolved by the courts. What is abundantly clear however, is that consumers in California put the chicken before the egg and are more than willing to pay a little bit more for eggs that come from chickens who are if not happy, at least happier thanks to their new, larger accommodations that, at least to a certain extent, let chickens do what chickens do.

By Alana Marie Burke
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The New York Times
Los Angeles Times
Humane Society of the United States