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Bruce Maiman: Farm bill amendment would hurt California farmers

If you care about consumer safety, high food standards, the humane treatment of animals, states’ rights or all of the above, you should vigorously oppose a little-known provision in the yet-to-be-passed federal farm bill called the King amendment.

The Protect Interstate Commerce Act, introduced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would overturn laws dealing with the manufacturing of agricultural products in dozens of states, including California’s Proposition 2, the farming standards statute overwhelmingly passed in 2008 requiring that egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal have enough room in their quarters to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs or wings and turn around freely.

Two years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 1437 into law, requiring all eggs sold in California to be compliant under Prop. 2’s standards.

King’s amendment targets that egg law.

“That amendment would compromise the health and safety of California consumers,” said Arnie Riebli, co-owner of Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, who, like other egg producers I spoke with, was quick to note the salmonella outbreak and egg recall of 2010. “That came from Congressman King’s district.”

“Iowa has the lowest food standards of any state in the Union,” Riebli said. “King is saying that the least common denominator of anything should be acceptable in any state.”

While farmers have until 2015 to implement the changes required in Prop. 2, JS West is already complying with the law. The 110-year-old Central Valley company poured $3.5 million into a 40,000-square-foot barn filled with new 4-by-12-foot cages, each holding 60 birds.

Has it made a difference? “It worked so well we built a second barn,” said Jill Benson, an executive vice president at West, which, like most egg ranches, initially opposed Prop. 2. However, Benson said, “We found through three flocks of data that the hens were producing just as well if not better. They’re calmer, less stressed, live longer and eat just about the same amount of feed. As a holistic approach to house and care for hens, it’s a win-win.”

Do the eggs cost more? “Probably a nickel, maybe six cents a dozen,” Riebli said.

“The direct impact of the King amendment passing would be a race to the bottom,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, told me. A member of the farm bill conference committee, Denham is one of many House Republicans and Democrats working to defeat King’s amendment.

“A huge number of states have different laws dealing with food safety, labeling, dairy standards, quarantines, invasive pests, even firewood,” he said. And they’d likely sue the federal government to protect those concerns should King’s amendment pass.

Ironic that a tort reform advocate like King would push something resulting in what Denham called “a frenzy of lawsuits.” A tea party favorite, King regularly champions states’ rights and derides over-regulation, as many tea partiers do. And like many tea partiers, he denounces federal government overreach, as he did last year in opposing another farm bill amendment making it illegal to bring a child to a dogfight or cockfight.

That, he said then, is “a province of the states ... to regulate these things, not for the federal government to do so.”

Now? While writing in a Tulsa World op-ed this month that states are free to regulate their producers, he said “no state should have the authority to regulate the other 49 states.”

Yet he wants the other 49 states to bow to Iowa’s lower standard by increasing Washington’s reach through federal regulation.

“It does seem a bit hypocritical to stand strong on the Constitution only when it benefits you or your state,” Denham said.

Why aren’t all those states-rights-small-government tea party voters giving King the what-for?

King, unavailable for an interview, cites the Commerce Clause, which, among other things, allows Congress to regulate any interstate trade barriers that might stunt the national economy.

But this isn’t a trade barrier; it’s a safety regulation. And this isn’t about the law; it’s about money. What King really wants, obviously, is for Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer, to access the nation’s largest market, California. At California’s expense. Who cares what Californians voted for?

“It will have a devastating effect on egg farmers in California,” Riebli said.

If King gets his way and Iowa eggs make it to California shelves, I can guarantee you, I won’t buy them. I will buy eggs from here.

It’s a safety issue, yes, but I live here. Neighbors, whether on my street or in the next county, get first dibs on my dollars whenever possible, even if it costs more.

Not that it would help. We’re not even serious when we say, “Buy American.” We don’t.

“The fact is,” Riebli said, “it’s always the low dollar that drives everything. That’s the American mentality.”