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On Friday, the California-based Santa Rosa Press Democrat published an editorial calling out the hypocrisy of the Farm Bill amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, “who will enthusiastically tell you that Washington meddles too much in state and local affairs. Until he disagrees with local voters and their elected representatives. Then he’s all for Washington laying down the law.” With the Farm Bill scheduled to come up in the House this week, the paper said “Congress should let the states – like hens on California farms – spread their wings, leaving King’s amendment to line cages.”

This week, Representatives Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., will try to strike the King provisions with an amendment of their own. The Denham-Schrader amendment will also attempt to substitute legislation to ban barren battery cages for laying hens and to drive a transition in the egg industry toward more humane housing systems.

There’s so much at stake – for more than 250 million laying hens now crammed in small cages and for more than 150 state laws that could be wiped out if the King amendment survives. The King amendment is not just an affront to animal welfare, but also to the longstanding Constitutional rights of the states to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens and local businesses. 

While the amendment ostensibly seeks to target state animal welfare laws, such as California’s Prop 2 and other anti-confinement laws and state laws banning horse slaughter, it is so broad and vague that it could be interpreted to nullify an entire spectrum of state laws dealing with food safety, labeling, labor and environmental protection. It could also trigger expensive court cases about any state law related to agricultural products, from the sale of raw milk, to the labeling of farm-raised fish or artificial sweeteners, to restrictions on firewood transported into a state in order to protect against invasive pests and damage to local forests. That’s why the King amendment is opposed by so many diverse organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Forcing states to allow commerce in products they have banned is about as heavy-handed as it gets. If any one state in the country allows the sale of horse meat or dog meat, every state would have to allow it – it’s the least common denominator approach to policymaking.

The King amendment is especially dubious because there is a much better and more reasonable solution to the problem of conflicting state laws on agriculture products – which is to adopt a uniform national standard, not to throw out standards altogether. This is the idea behind the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, H.R. 1731/S. 820, which would preempt state standards for laying hens, but replace them with a minimum standard when it comes to animal welfare (producers, driven by the market, can reach for an even higher welfare standard, but they can’t fall below the federal rule). If there is a problem with interstate commerce caused by conflicting state laws, such as on the housing of egg-laying hens, the more workable and narrow approach to provide regulatory certainty is the Denham-Schrader amendment – which is supported by all the key stakeholders, the egg industry, veterinary groups, leading animal welfare groups and consumer groups.