With Gov. Stephen Sisolak’s signature on June 4, Nevada joined Utah, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, by mandating cage-free eggs.

There just one problem. There are no commercial egg producers in Nevada, nor are any likely to set up businesses there. Jerry Wilkins from Colorado’s Morning Fresh Farms visited Carson City in April to endorse the bill.

“In many ways, we are you ‘local’ egg supplier and have a vested interest in making sure Nevadans can continue to enjoy fresh farm eggs from this area that are humane, safe, and affordable,” said Wilkins.

Wilkins said it costs millions of dollars to convert to cage-free eggs. Morning Fresh Farms supports Nevada going cage-free in the name of a more stable egg supply and creating a level playing field.

More than 200 retail and restaurant chains say they now prefer cage-free eggs, accounting for about 25 percent of the current market. Five years ago, cage-free production accounted for about 6 percent of egg sales.

The Nevada Farm Bureau (NFB) started out opposing Nevada Assembly Bill (AB) 399. Executive Vice President Doug Busselman said NFB ended up no longer in opposition to the cage-free bill during the legislative process.

That’s because the Humane Society of the United States agreed to remove all requirements of the cage-free bill from egg producers with 3,000 or fewer laying hens. “Our opposition was based on the impacts of Nevada’s small backyard and small egg producers,” Busselman said.

With no commercial-size egg producers in Nevada and no battery cage systems in use, NFB was satisfied in just cutting small producers out of the bill’s coverage. Three thousand laying hens or less is commonly used as the definition of a small producer.

The Nevada Restaurant Association was also neutral AB 399 but questioned the timing of an action that likely raises the cost of a staple food on an industry in need of time to recover after being devastated by the pandemic.

Another out-of-state egg producer, NuCal Foods of California, also was present in Nevada to lobby for the bill.

“This trend toward cage-free eggs is driven in large part by the customer and sometimes pushed along by animal advocacy groups, ” says NuCal’s Jim Van Gorkom.

NuCal has supplied Nevada with fresh shell eggs “for decades from their farms in California.” Van Gorkom said.

The Nevada Senate committee report says state regulation of egg production on farms and the sale of eggs and egg products is necessary to protect the health and welfare of the public, promote food safety, and advance animal welfare.

The bill prohibits the sale of eggs or egg products, the transport of eggs or egg products in Nevada, and knowingly confining an egg-laying hen in enclosures that do not comply. It permits the Nevada Department of Agriculture to use both government and private inspectors to ensure compliance.

Assemblyman Howard Watts, D-Las Vegas, said the bill he sponsored “seeks to ensure that eggs produced or sold in the state of Nevada meet certain standards of humane treatment for laying hens, often referred to as ‘cage-free’ housing. Both egg producers and animal welfare advocates agree that this is the right thing to do.”

Watts, who says he has a backyard flock of six hens, says domestic chickens had space to move “for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years” until an “industrial model that put efficiency over all else resulted in ‘horrific’ conditions with hens in battery cages.”

With no commercial egg producers located in Nevada, there were questions raised about whether AB 399 will make much difference to enforcement and inspections.

Watts told fellow lawmakers that a farm owner or operator would have to go through a cage-free certification process with the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA). He says small producers that are exempt “almost always meet cage-free standards anyway.”

Watts said NDA would integrate the new requirements into “the existing producers to guarantee food safety, including eggs.” He said there are “various options to have inspections provided” in NDA reports as part of the process.

AB 399 passed the Nevada Senate, 16-to-5; and the Assembly or lower house, 27-15.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)