Editorial: Big agriculture restricts choice when it comes to eggs



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Editorial Board

The Iowa State Legislature just passed a bill that requires Iowa grocers who participate in the Women Infant and Children (WIC) supplemental food program to sell conventional eggs if they currently sell cage-free, free-range ones. So if you are in the market for eggs laid by conventionally-raised hens, go to a store that participates in the WIC program.

While the country is moving toward more humane ways to raise chickens and other farm animals, the Iowa legislature feels it must take its valuable time to protect the interests of those egg producers who do not want to change with popular opinion.

The bill is inexplicable in several ways. Why does the party that touts its support of free markets, less government oversight and capitalism want to dictate what grocers sell? The supporters of the bill argue they are supporting consumer choice. Are conventional eggs really that difficult to find?

Furthermore, the bill’s narrow scope reveals the justification is not at all credible. The bill does not apply to purchases under the federal food stamp program, known as SNAP, which has far more participants. It does not apply if a grocery store does not currently sell cage-free, free-range eggs. The main effect is that grocery stores affected cannot analyze what their customers want and buy inventory accordingly.

Several large retailers, including Walmart, Hy-Vee, Costco and McDonalds have listened to the public, which increasingly finds traditional methods of caging chickens unacceptable. Those companies have pledged to go cage-free within the decade. 

Our state legislature, ever sensitive to and responsive to the needs of big agriculture, has decided to intervene in the free market. While the total dollars involved are probably small, we can only assume big agriculture did not like the idea that cage-free eggs have become popular enough that some stores may offer only that more humane alternative. While the number of stores involved is probably small, big agriculture must feel threatened and is asserting its power over the supply chain.

But given all the issues Iowa faces, the fact that our legislature spent time drafting and passing a bill that curtails the choice of grocery store operators, requiring them to provide a product which is already widely available, shows thinking about eggs has scrambled our legislature’s collective brain.