WHAT OTHERS SAY: Eggs lawsuit is politically smart, ethically sketchy for Koster

Monday, February 10, 2014 | 3:33 p.m. CST; updated 12:42 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chris Koster, Missouri’s attorney general and the Democratic Party’s presumptive gubernatorial nominee in 2016, has sued the state of California in the interests of Missouri’s egg industry.

This is surely a wise move politically. The ethical considerations are a little dicier.

In 2008, California voters gave a 63 percent majority to Proposition 2, the “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” initiative. The legislation that resulted requires that certain animals (veal calves, sow hogs and laying hens) must have room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

California egg producers were faced with $385 million in costs to expand so-called “battery cages.” Those cages, stacked side by side and up and down like cells in a battery, allot each hen 76 square inches, 18 percent smaller than a standard sheet of copier paper.

To level the playing field, California lawmakers in 2010 passed a law requiring all eggs sold in California — where one in every three eggs laid in Missouri is sold — to come from hens quartered in equally roomy accommodations.

Mr. Koster’s federal lawsuit says that violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Alas, the Quebec and New York goose liver industries — and it’s not every day you see the phrase “goose liver industries” — made a similar argument in challenging a 2004 California law. That one outlawed the practice of force-feeding geese to produce bigger, fattier livers, which could be turned into foie gras.

A federal judge in California ruled against the Commerce Clause argument; in August, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals denied a request for a temporary injunction against the foie gras law, saying the goose liver industry was unlikely to prevail.

Neither is Mr. Koster. If they want to sell eggs in California, Missouri’s egg producers may have to install bigger cages or let their birds roam cage-free.

What’s that got to do with price of eggs? It will be going up.

On the other hand, Mr. Koster will have earned valuable support from Missouri’s agricultural interests. California’s confined farm animal proposition was funded heavily by the Humane Society of the United States, which became a bête noire to many Missouri farmers by funding the great puppy mill fight in 2010.

Last year the legislature voted to put a “Right to Farm” proposition before voters this November, the idea being to keep animal rights groups from interfering with farming practices. The language is a little squishy, so lawmakers may have to try again this session.

Between now and November, Missourians can expect to hear a lot of talk about “outside animal rights extremists” and “battery cages” and “sow gestation crates.” Unfortunately.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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