Rumors were flying last week that the Farm Bill might finally be making progress in Congress, but lawmakers left for the holiday break still split over cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), squashing hopes of a final agreement before the year’s out.

We’ve talked about why the Farm Bill is important to San Diego, and how cuts to the SNAP program will impact our city; and explained how for the very first time, we have a San Diego lawmaker sitting at the table during these negotiations, but there’s yet another way what happens to the Farm Bill could end up impacting your breakfast table.

Clare Leschin-Hoar Logo

It turns out California’s egg law is at the center of some important negotiations thanks to a controversial amendment being proposed by an equally controversial Iowa lawmaker.

Rep. Steve King, (the one who grabbed headlines this summer when he ranted about illegal immigrants who have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”) is determined to slip language into the Farm Bill that would prevent California from implementing its own egg law. Should the amendment go through, it could have painful ramifications for San Diego County farmers.

Scheduled to go in effect in 2015, California’s law that mandates that farm animals, including egg-laying hens have enough room to spread their wings, turn around and lie down. It also protects California egg farmers by keeping out eggs produced in other states, like Iowa (surprise!) that use intensive, less expensive animal practices — like battery gages, where several hens are housed in the same cage, often without the ability to spread their wings or exhibit other natural behaviors like nesting or perching.

“We have about a dozen commercial egg producers in the county,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “While that doesn’t sound like an impressive number, in 2012 they produced 70,071 dozen eggs at a total wholesale value of $67.2 million.” That makes us one of the top five egg-producing counties in the nation.

San Diego County egg producer Frank Hilliker, whose family has been selling eggs in San Diego since 1942, has already gone out and made the investment to convert his hen houses from battery cages to a free range facility, and expects to be compliant with the new law by mid-2014.

“I had to do something now because I don’t have the resources to change it [to comply] in two months. I had to go out and borrow the money,” he said. “This is a huge expense. We’re a small family business.”

The language in King’s amendment is vague: “Prohibition against interference by state and local governments with production or manufacture of items in other states.”

In plain English, it means King wants to ensure that cheaper Iowa eggs can be sold in California, where our own growers are required to comply with regulations that make production more expensive. But many are concerned King’s amendment will have a ripple effect that would lead to legal challenges in dozens of other states over food production, food safety and more.

“The King amendment throws a monkey wrench in the works,” said Larsen. “He’s aiming it at the eggs, but he can’t word the language in there for eggs specifically. So, for example, now if one state agrees to slaughter and sell horse meat, every state has to accept that horse meat from that state even if it’s illegal in their own state.”

For Hilliker, the real worry is the threat of cheap eggs flooding the California market.

“If they let any eggs in from any place else that doesn’t play by our rules, it will make an uneven playing field, and the voters who passed Prop. 2 won’t be getting what they wanted,” said Hilliker.

The Association of California Egg Farmers agrees with Hilliker, and is working with California lawmakers to prevent that language from being inserted into the bill.

“There are egg producers in other states that already comply with California’s egg law in order to sell eggs here now,” said Debbie Murdock, spokesperson for the association. “We’re not requiring them to do anything that we’re not doing ourselves. But we are concerned about this. You never know what will happen when they negotiate a farm bill.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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