Supreme Court declines to hear challenges to animal welfare laws, upholding caged hen and foie gras bans

The United States Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear challenges to two of California’s most wide-ranging and controversial animal rights laws: bans on foie gras and eggs from caged hens. It also declined to a hear a similar challenge to a caged-hen law in Massachusetts. The decisions leave lower court rulings intact and ensures the policies will stand, at least for now.

Some background: The dispute started with California’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, a 2008 ballot measure also known as Proposition 2, which mandated that the state’s farm animals could not be confined “in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.” Though the law applied to all livestock, it specifically affected pigs, veal calves, and egg-laying hens, which tend to be raised in cramped quarters. That decision caused upheaval in the American egg industry, where the vast majority of commercial eggs are still produced by hens crammed into cages no larger than a sheet of paper.

After Proposition 2’s passage, California egg producers argued that the new law put them at a disadvantage compared to other states that weren’t subject to the same rules. So the state legislature successfully moved to ban all eggs from caged hens—regardless of where they are laid. In 2014, that prompted a number of other states—Missouri was the lead plaintiff, but Iowa, and other egg-laying states also signed on—to sue. Their argument was that Proposition 2 violated the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA), the federal law that oversees egg production, as well as the Interstate Commerce Clause, a provision in the U.S. Constitution that gives the federal government power to limit the power of individual states “to erect barriers against interstate trade.” (The New Food Economy’s Jessica Fu has more on the history of this case.)

California’s animal welfare laws are sure to see additional challenges in the future.
With Monday’s decision, the Supreme Court has definitively rejected that logic—not just in California, but in a similarly argued case in Massachusetts, which had also been sued by a group of egg-producing states. This is a win for animal rights activists, to be sure, and also arguably for the state’s citizens, who approved Proposition 2 by nearly 27 percentage points in 2008.

The Court also declined to take up a challenge to California’s foie gras ban, which was enacted in 2004 after the state legislature passed a law designed to stop what lawmakers said was a cruel and inhumane practice. In July of 2012, a day after the law took effect, a group of out-of-state foie gras producers sued, arguing that the state’s rule violated the Constitution’s Commerce and Due Process clause. When that case was dismissed, they argued that the law violated an arcane provision of the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which governs the interstate sale of domesticated birds slaughtered for human consumption.

That argument had been dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, but plaintiffs had sought further consideration from the nation’s highest court. Now, it’s clear that won’t happen.

California’s animal welfare rules have caused controversy and industry turmoil in the past, and they’re sure to see additional challenges in the future.

“I am disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear this case,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in an e-mailed statement. “My office will continue to fight for Missouri consumers and farmers and protect them from burdensome regulations.”

But Monday’s decision means that these rules will live to see another day.


Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.