Every 5 years or so Congress must pass a new Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is legislation that sets federal agricultural policy for the following 5 years. Provisions in the Farm Bill typically affect a myriad of food-related issues such as agricultural research, food stamps, and animal welfare. The House’s version of the most recent Farm Bill includes a controversial section proposed by Representative Steve King (R-IA) called the "Prohibition against interference by State and local governments with production or manufacture of items in other States." Better known as the "King Amendment," this provision prohibits any state from imposing its own higher standards or conditions on food produced or manufactured in another state. This means that some state laws that regulate agriculture will be nullified. The practical effect of King's proposal greatly concerns animal welfare advocates as it provides a disincentive for states to pass legislation aimed at treating farm animals humanely.
California's Proposition 2
While King disagrees that his proposal will affect a significant number of state agricultural laws, he does acknowledge that it will indeed nullify California's Proposition 2. In fact, Proposition 2 was the impetus for his proposal. Proposition 2 was passed in California in 2008, with 63% voting in favor. Also known as the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, Proposition 2 bans the confinement of breeding pigs, veal calves, and egg-laying hens in cages so small that the animals cannot stretch their limbs or stand up and freely turn around. In addition to the humane aspect of Proposition 2, there are also many health concerns that affect the consumer of carcinogenic and improperly kept animals (these drugs can cause severe long term side-effects to those who consume them). Former California Governor Schwarzenegger later made it a law that as of January 1, 2015 all eggs sold in California must be produced according to Proposition 2's standards, regardless of whether they originate in or outside of California. This law was designed to ensure that out-of-state farmers do not undercut California egg farmers with eggs produced cheaply, using hens that were raised under less humane conditions than Proposition 2 requires. Because many other states do not have this same high standard of animal treatment, the King Amendment would invalidate Proposition 2.
California is not alone in its efforts to ensure that food is produced in a humane manner. Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Ohio, Rhode Island, Colorado, Maine, and Michigan have also passed rules similar to California's Proposition 2 that ban gestation crates, veal crates, and/or battery cages.
Race to the Bottom
While some may feel that California's law sets a standard that is too high and too expensive for farmers, animal welfare advocates and others oppose the King Amendment because it sets the standard too low. As Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) put it, the King Amendment would set off "a race to the bottom if we're going to basically set the lowest standards across the nation." If an Iowa farmer, for example, wants to sell veal in California, California would not be able to force that Iowa farmer to raise his or her calves under the humane guidelines of Proposition 2. The Iowa farmer would only be required to meet the much lower standards of Iowa. Absent a proclivity to do so, there would be no incentive for the Iowa farmer to conform to a higher standard, and there would be less of an incentive for states to pass laws requiring humane treatment of farm animals.
Instead of allowing states to determine the standards for farmers who choose to do business there, the Amendment will force a state to turn a blind eye to farmers who produce food under conditions that many believe to be cruel. Animal welfare advocates are troubled by this as the inevitable result will be that more animals will be treated poorly since state laws requiring otherwise will be nullified.
While it is unclear whether the King Amendment will remain part of the Farm bill and ultimately become law, it does seem as if the trend is that more and more states are passing initiatives that seek to ensure more humane treatment of farms animals. However, for those that are against such initiatives and many that support the King Amendment, the issue boils down to money. It is more expensive to treat animals in the way that rules such as Proposition 2 require. Therefore, "cage-free" eggs are significantly more expensive for consumers to purchase than eggs produced from caged hens. Do you think that a part of the strategy of animal rights advocacy groups should be to finding ways to make it more cost effective to raise farm animals humanely?