MODESTO -- California egg producers have asked a court to overturn Proposition 2, a 2008 measure dealing with the size of hen cages, on the grounds that it is too vague.
They filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court against the measure, which requires that hens have enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their wings.
The plaintiffs argue that the measure does not specify how much space should be provided by the Jan. 1, 2015, deadline to comply.
"Given the ambiguity in Proposition 2 and the risk of criminal prosecution for violating it, egg farmers have no choice other than to challenge the validity of the law," said Petaluma farmer Arnie Riebli, president of the association, in a news release Monday.
The Humane Society of the United States, the measure's chief sponsor, said a federal judge rejected a similar argument from a Riverside County farmer in September.
"I think we need to stop the legal wrangling and get on with the process of implementing the measure," said Jonathan Lovvorn, a senior vice president at the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Despite the legal battle in California, the Humane Society and the industry have come together on a national compromise that would roughly double the average cage space per hen over several years.
Congress has not acted on a pair of bills that would carry this out. One is co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. The other was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Closely watched issue
The issue has been closely watched in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, a major source of eggs. They brought an estimated $133 million in gross income to farmers last year, according to county crop reports.
Most of the U.S. industry follows voluntary standards that call for an average of 67 square inches of cage floor space per hen. Backers say hens are contented and productive in the relatively close quarters.
Proposition 2's sponsors persuaded voters that this was not enough room for natural hen behavior. It passed with 63 percent "yes" votes." J.S. West & Cos. of Modesto was the first egg producer to start converting cages in 2010. It expanded the average space per hen to 116 square inches for 8 percent of its flock.
The lawsuit contends that the industry cannot reach full compliance because of the vagueness of the ballot measure.
"The lack of clarity regarding hen enclosure standards has become dire because it will require an investment of more than $400 million from the state's egg farmers and an estimated three years to construct new facilities in California," said Debbie Murdock, the association's executive director, in the release.
Lovvorn said the measure is clear: "Anything that allows the animals to engage in these (natural) behaviors is sufficient."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.