How much space should chickens have? Nebraska to join suit that challenges California rules

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Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 12:00 am

The State of Nebraska will join in a federal lawsuit over rules for how much space chickens must have, an issue that state officials say could lead to restrictions on the state's beef, dairy and hog industries as well.

The lawsuit represents another round of disagreement between Nebraska agriculture officials and the Humane Society of the United States, which has called for humane practices in the livestock industry in general.

Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning said in a press release Wednesday that the state would join in the lawsuit filed by the State of Missouri. It challenges California laws that require chicken growers in other states to provide a certain amount of space for chickens that lay eggs bound for California.

California uses about 12 million eggs a year from other states.

Heineman and Bruning said the Humane Society promotes “anti-agriculture policies and practices.”

“We have continually told (the Humane Society) that their anti-ag attacks are not welcome in Nebraska,” Heineman said. “That includes their attempts at creating overreaching, arbitrary, unconstitutional policy. (We) stand with agriculture and we will fight (the Humane Society) who wants to destroy agriculture in our state.”

Humane Society spokeswoman Heather Sullivan said, “We are definitely not anti-agriculture. We definitely work with farmers who are working toward more sustainable and humane practices.”

In 2008, California voters approved a ballot measure sponsored by the Humane Society that set minimum size standards for chickens in egg-laying operations. In 2010, the California Legislature required that producers of eggs brought into the state must meet the same standards.

“There is concern that the California egg production standards create a precedent that would negatively impact Nebraska agriculture,” Heineman said. “This is about protecting Nebraska's farmers and ranchers from the potential for regulatory burdens that hamper interstate trade.”

Bruning said, “Nebraska farmers and ranchers have taken great pride in caring for their livestock for generations,” calling the California rules an “unconstitutional attempt to dictate farming practices in our state.”

The two said the U.S. Constitution does not let California voters “dictate the business practices of Nebraska egg producers” because it prohibits states from regulating economic activity outside their borders.

Heineman and Bruning said farmers and ranchers in Nebraska raised the issue. Greg Ibach, director of the State Department of Agriculture, said “the California regulations appear to be more about protecting the market for California farmers.”

Nebraska was the 12th largest egg-producing state in the country in 2013, with about 9.2 million egg-laying hens that produced 2.7 billion eggs, valued at $180 million, the press release said.

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