Staff Editorial

Legislative response to shifting egg industry is a bit cracked

A worker removes a cracked egg from an Iowa production line in this 2010 file photo.  (The Gazette)
A worker removes a cracked egg from an Iowa production line in this 2010 file photo. (The Gazette)

Iowa may soon deliver a historic victory for factory farms.

If House File 2408 earns the governor’s signature, grocery stores now carrying “conventional eggs” would be required to continue stocking them, if they also want to offer “specialty eggs.” The rule only applies to grocery stores participating in the federal Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC.

The legislation cleared the Iowa House and Iowa Senate this year relying mostly on Republican votes, but with a few members of each party crossing the political aisle.

Specialty eggs, according to lawmakers, include those marketed as cage-free, free-range or enriched colony eggs — all of which are seen by animal welfare activists as more humane ways to raise chickens — and conventional eggs are everything else. The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is required to adopt new rules for enforcing the regulation.

Imagine the conservative response if the roles were reversed and Democrats mandated stores carry specialty eggs. Republicans would rightly be outraged at the infringement on private enterprise.

“This really is direct interference with the marketplace, with merchants’ ability to choose what products they will or will not offer based on their consumers’ reactions,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said on the Senate floor this week.

Agriculture is a strong force in Iowa politics. Our state is the nation’s biggest egg producer, with nearly twice as many hens as any other state, according to the American Egg Board.

Still, there did not appear to be a significant advocacy effort behind the egg bill. Lobbyists from just two organizations filed support for the Senate bill before this week’s vote, the Iowa Poultry Association and Iowans for Consumer Choice.

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This is an issue the free market is fully equipped to handle, without help from meddling state legislators.

Several major food sellers have announced plans in recent years to transition to cage-free eggs. For example, Hy-Vee announced in 2016 it would start using only cage-free eggs in its restaurants, with plans to offer only cage-free eggs to grocery shoppers by 2022.

“We need time to evaluate how moving to 100 percent cage-free eggs will financially impact our customers, especially those who rely on the value eggs bring to a tight budget,” company officials wrote two years ago.

Iowa farmers have been feeding the world for decades because they grow food people want to buy. Their economic future depends on their ability to meet that demand, not on government action.

• Comments: (319) 389-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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