Food Freedom

Vegetarians and Meat Eaters Are Trying to Stifle Interstate Commerce

Federal legislation may be the only solution to overreaching state laws.


Aleyev Yegor/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Nearly a decade ago, vegetarian and vegan activists in California scored a policy victory that raised the stakes for meat consumers across the country. Assembly Bill No. 1437, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, prohibited California poultry farmers from housing their hens in subjectively small cages. This was a huge policy change in and of itself, but the law contained an even more far-reaching provision: an eventual ban on the sale of all eggs laid in such a cage, even if the chickens were raised in another state.

These types of laws can cut the opposite way as well. In Missouri, legislators are currently considering a ban on labelling products as "meat" if they come from plant matter or were grown in a lab, regardless of how closely they resemble actual animal meat.

In both cases, state legislators are attempting to regulate interstate commerce, but that's not their job.

Enter H.R. 4879, the Protect Interstate Commerce Act (PICA). The bill is intended to invalidate a growing number of state anti-meat, pro-vegan laws. In addition to removing barriers to interstate commerce in "agricultural products," the law would create a private right of action, meaning any producer, marketer, or consumer impacted by a state law that burdens such commerce could sue the state to recover damages.

In a press release last month, bill author Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) says passage of his legislation would stem the tide of out-of-state regulation of agriculture production.

"States do not have the Constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce; the United States Congress does," says King, referring to Congress's plenary power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce under the Constitution's Commerce Clause. "If California, or any other state, wants to regulate how products are made within their borders, they can do so. But Iowa's producers should not be held hostage to the demands of California's Vegan Lobby and California's regulatory agencies."

California is squarely the target of the law, as King states. And California deserves this law. Back in 2010, I wrote a law-review article critical of the state's unprecedented burdening of interstate (and intrastate) commerce: The "California Effect" & the Future of American Food: How California's Growing Crackdown on Food & Agriculture Harms the State & the Nation.

Examples of state laws that could fall under PICA include ones I've written about recently. Atop the list is California's foie gras ban. (I recently wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason, and the Cato Institute in support of foie gras producers and sellers who are fighting the California ban.) A Massachusetts animal-rights law—which expands on the California animal enclosure law and which I wrote about here—would also be illegal under PICA.

In short, PICA would strike down bad animal-rights laws that interfere with interstate commerce while also preventing other states from adopting similar laws in the future. Not surprisingly, animal-rights groups are apoplectic over the bill.

"Rep. King's amendment could undercut the will of the people and force states and localities to allow the sale of dangerous and inhumanely-produced products," the Humane Society of the United States says in a recent action alert. "It is the single largest threat to animals in the United States."

But it turns out the bill could also overturn state pro-meat or anti-vegan laws such as the ban on use of the term "meat" now under consideration in Missouri. If Missouri livestock farmers get their way, the state "would specifically prohibit the use of the term 'meat' on products that don't come from animals," the New Food Economy reported last week.

Missouri's bill makes the potential reach of PICA particularly interesting. Congress and federal agencies are already grappling with the looming arrival of lab-grown meats (meat products crafted from cultured animal cells, rather than from living animals).

I was alerted to the Missouri bill recently by Don Carr, a friend and senior advisor with the Environmental Working Group who was working on a post for his personal blog, The Republic of Awesome, exploring whether and how PICA might invalidate the Missouri law. As I told Carr, I'm pretty sure PICA would do just that.

That's music to some ears, even among those who oppose PICA.

"That Rep. King's misguided bill would likely preempt a state law that he may favor just shows the futility of trying to legislate away local democracy," said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, in an email to me this week.

PICA could strike down bad state laws that interfere with interstate commerce in food. Unintentionally, the law could strike down such laws regardless of the qualities of the agricultural products in question—regardless of whether a food is preferred by omnivores, carnivores, or vegans. That's a feature, not a flaw. And its reach may expand beyond food. Should the federal government take the unthinkable-yet-inevitable step to legalize the interstate shipment and sale of marijuana, PICA could also prohibit states from banning pot.

Ultimately, PICA could be a real boon to those who actually want to, you know, protect interstate commerce. And that's a good thing.