Call to action for cage-free farming in California

Published 5/11 in The Mercury News by Nicoletta Lanese

Hundreds of animal rights activists across California are swept up in campaign preparations for a new cage-free farming initiative they’re expecting to hit the November ballot to ban cages for chickens, pigs and veal calves.

“Those who oppose the initiative simply believe consumers will ignore the plight of animals being abused in factory farms,” said Josh Balk, vice president of Farm Animal Production for the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society spearheaded the ballot initiative, and along with a coalition of animal protection, veterinary and food safety groups, began gathering signatures last fall. They needed to collect a minimum of 365,880 signatures by April and got about 660,000, which the state is in the process of verifying.

“It’s an issue that crosses all demographics,” Balk said. “We expect to win in landslide-fashion in the fall.”

Should the initiative qualify and pass, it would require every egg-laying hen in California to be allotted a square foot of space by 2019. By 2021, egg farmers would have to transition to a fully cage-free system, according to guidelines set by the United Egg Producers. The initiative would also require all veal calves to be cage-free by 2019, and crates for breeding pigs to be phased out by 2021.

The Humane Society expects the initiative to receive its proposition number next month and by late June more than 1,600 volunteers will hit the streets to drum up support as part of the organization’s largest grassroots campaign to date.

For some, the campaign might trigger feelings of déjà vu.

In 2008, the Humane Society pushed Proposition 2 to the ballot to modify standards for the confinement of farm animals — namely hens, pigs and veal calves. At the time, farmers were allowed to keep chickens in stacked “battery cages,” with six to eight birds in each cage. According to Ballotpedia, Prop. 2 was the first instance these battery cages were brought to a vote in the United States.

The Humane Society was by far the largest contributor to the campaign, putting up more than $4 million out of a total $10.5 million for the “yes” side. The top donors on the opposing side were Cal-Maine Foods, Rose Acre Farms, Moark LLC and J.S. West Milling, which contributed a total of $8.9 million.

Despite opposition, Prop. 2 passed by a landslide — 63.5 percent to 36.5 against — and took full effect in 2015. Farmers were required to give their animals enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. In 2010, these standards were applied to all hens whose eggs are sold within California.



But just how much room does a chicken need? The statute didn’t specify.

After much debate and a lawsuit filed by J.S. West, a major egg-producer in California, the egg industry set the standard at 67 to 87 square inches per hen, though 67 square inches isn’t quite the cage-free living the Humane Society originally intended to secure for animals across the state. The organization expects its new initiative to pass with more than 70 percent of the vote and finish the job it started 10 years ago, Balk said.

Meanwhile, state Assembly members Marc Levine, Jose Medina and Rudy Salas have introduced their own cage-free bill. “This bill is more expansive than Proposition 2,” said Levine, noting it would require farms in California and those serving California to have cage-free hen housing with nest boxes, perches and 144 square inches per bird, all within six years.

“This time is necessary to provide the nation’s egg farmers time to get permits, land use approval, obtain capital, and build out the facilities,” he said.

What does the push to go cage-free mean for California farmers?

Opponents of Prop. 2 had argued that if the act was to pass, egg supply would fall and egg prices would rise. A recent study conducted by economists Jayson Lusk and Conner Mullally suggests they may have been right. The proposition took full effect in 2015 and they found that by summer 2016 the number of egg-laying hens and eggs produced in California had dropped 35 percent while prices rose 33 percent per dozen.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the year Prop. 2 passed, California produced about 5.3 billion eggs at a value of about a dollar per dozen. The most recent statistics from 2016 show egg production fell to about 3.5 billion at 72.6 cents a dozen.

The National Egg Farmers Association opposes the Humane Society’s cage-free measure, according to its president, Ken Klippen. Egg Farmers cites studies that suggest cage-free eggs are more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, roundworms and Salmonella than caged eggs. Beyond food safety, the organization is concerned with hen safety, citing research that suggests cage-free systems introduce higher chances of bone breakage, potential red mite infestation, and stressful chicken-on-chicken competition.

In regards to veal and pig crates, opponents of Prop. 2 argued they were already sparse in 2008 and being phased out voluntarily. The California Pork Producers Association opposes the Humane Society’s new initiative on the grounds that “gestation stalls keep sows healthy and safe.” In a statement, the organization maintains that changes to livestock production practices should be made by farmers — not animal rights activists — and that the new mandates would drive up food costs, reduce consumer choice and potentially harm animals.

Farmers outside of California may also have qualms with the latest proposed initiative.

“The major concern with this proposal is that farmers in other states will be required to comply with new burdensome regulations,” said Ben Smithwick of the Pacific Research Institute.

States have already adjusted their egg production to comply with California’s existing egg laws. Six states sued California at the district level over being made to conform to Prop. 2, though their case has been dismissed twice now.

In response to the opposition, Balk says there’s no point in fighting an initiative 75 percent of Californians have already committed to. And the nation’s major egg-buyers side with them.

“This law goes hand in glove with where the market is going,” Balk said.

Major corporations like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Safeway and Walmart have committed to buying cage-free eggs, and more are following suit. Regardless of the initial cost of removing cages and reorganizing their farms, he said, the industry will inevitably have to make the switch.