Friday, February 10, 2012

Chickens & Eggs; Capital & the State

I've had tried to make a common point in a number of posts: government regulation does not always mean socialism. Regulations do not always represent a fight between business and government.

Instead, companies often push for government regulations. In a number of other posts, I have offered examples of this: the restaurant trade association favoring nutrition regulations, some corporations favoring health care legislation, some conservative farm organizations supporting extensive economic regulations in agriculture, and so on.

This morning, I heard another classic example of this phenomenon on NPR in a story about egg-producing chickens. As the story indicates, the "United Egg Producers, which represents companies that produce about 95 percent of the country's eggs" is supporting federal regulation to improve conditions under which egg-laying chickens are kept.

For many years, egg-laying chickens have been kept in confined spaces with their environments -- temperature, lighting, etc. -- closely controlled to maximize their egg production. Under the proposed legislation, cages would be provide more space, room to perch, and a "nest box."

Now, there are several key points to this story. First, as already seen, a significant part of the egg industry is in favor of this legislation. Why? A couple of reasons. One reason is pressure from the Humane Society. This is important because it shows the role that pressure from a social movement organization can have.

Another reason for the industry favoring this legislation is that the United Egg Producers is seeking to smooth out potentially unfair competition and uneven state-level legislation. California already has a law regulating the conditions of chickens in the egg industry, and other states are likely to follow. (I might also add here that other countries, especially in Europe, already have such laws.) This creates the potential that producers in different states or selling to different places may be subject to different standards and regulations, thereby leading to different costs of production (and differing abilities to compete in the market).

Federal legislation would reduce this kind of competition by holding all companies to the same standards and regulations.

The second key point in this story is that the egg industry did not simply decide to support this legislation on ethical or moral grounds, or because the industry felt it was the right thing to do. Rather, the Humane Society -- an organization advocating for the welfare of animals -- created pressure and contributed to legislative successes that prompted the egg industry to move in this direction. In my view, then, this story helps to illuminate one way that social movements can be successful: by helping to forge a context in which the interests of a powerful group begins to coincide with policies pushed by the movement.

Finally, this story contains one more key point: the primary opponents of the legislation includes "some influential farm organizations" such as "Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it." The other segments of the meat industry are concerned about a federal law that would regulate the conditions of animals.

Note, that the conditions that animals -- chickens, hogs, cows, etc. -- are kept in is the result of the imperatives of profit and efficiency. What's the most cost efficient (i.e., lowest cost) way to keep chickens, etc.? A government regulation, such as the one supported by egg producers, can eliminate the competition that comes at the expense of the living conditions of animals.

Here again is the embodiment of the analysis found in The Politics of Food Supply: different segments of agriculture develop competing economic interests and form (sometimes surprising) coalitions to try to influence national policy.

1 comment:

  1. This outrageous bill would establish egg factory cages--still confining and inhumane--as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote. Instead of outlawing cages -- this crazy measure would outlaw the banning of cages. That is why it is being pushed by the egg industry itself! The Stop the Rotten Egg Bill ( campaign is getting it right. Check it out. This bill would nullify California's Proposition 2 - replacing it with a variety of empty "reforms" that are already occurring due to state law and public pressure.