California egg farmers announced Monday they are suing the state, claiming the 2008 ballot initiative that sought to end "cruel confinement" of hens and other types of farm animals is unconstitutionally vague and, as such, should be nullified by the courts.
Proposition 2 was authored by the Humane Society of the United States and passed with 63 percent of the vote. It required that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined in such a way that they be able to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely and that farmers comply with the mandate by Jan. 1, 2015.
The law covers eggs laid by California's nearly 19 million caged hens as well as those brought in from out of state.
The Association of California Egg Farmers filed the lawsuit in Fresno Superior Court on Friday, alleging that the proposition "provides no ascertainable guidance on the required dimensions or densities of hen enclosures."
The trade group estimates that it will cost California's 50 or so commercial egg farmers more than $400 million and take about three years to build roomier facilities for their hens.
"We're not opposed to providing them with more space," said Sacramento attorney Dale Stern of Downey Brand, the legal counsel for the egg farmers' group. "We just need to know how much. How can (farmers') investors or their lenders give them the money to build if they don't know what they're going to spend it on?"
Egg producers are also concerned about how the criminal penalties laid out in the law will be enforced, Stern said. Under Proposition 2, farmers face $1,000 in fines and up to 180 days in jail per violation. He asked: Would each illegally housed hen pose a separate violation? And would the sentence be multiplied by the number of individual hens?
Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel of the Humane Society of the United States, argues that California's egg farmers are stalling. His organization is "baffled" by Friday's filing, he said, given that a federal judge in September dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by a Riverside County egg producer.
"The question for them is, 'When is it enough: four lawsuits, five lawsuits? When do we stop this and get on with implementing Proposition 2?' " Lovvorn said. "They've done a very good job of creating a whole lot of media and controversy over this idea that the measure is unclear. But the only judge who's ever looked at this says you don't have to be (TV homicide detective) Columbo to figure out what this means."
Arnie Riebli, a fourth-generation egg farmer of Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms and president of the Association of California Egg Farmers, disagreed. "They have never been willing to sit down with us and define what they mean by adequate space. In the federal legislation that they proposed, they actually have numbers of density. That's all we're asking for," Riebli said.
Suggestions for how much room each chicken needs range from 90 square inches per hen as detailed by University of California, Davis, expert Joy Mench to a 200-square-inch standard that national Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle deemed satisfactory in an interview with The Bee last month.
Those figures still make little sense until egg farmers get direction on how many hens will be allowed per cage, Stern said.