Editorial: Vote yes on Prop. 12 to give farm animals a cage-free life

Published 9/4 in The Mercury News

Improving lives of millions of hens, pigs, calves should be at top of voters’ pecking order

Shoppers buying eggs in California grocery stores can see firsthand the progress that has been made since 2008 when 64 percent of California voters passed an initiative designed to halt the practice of housing hens in cages so small that they were virtually immobile.

Eggs produced from cage-free or free-roaming hens are readily available. Major corporations such as McDonald’s, Safeway, Starbucks and Walmart have committed to only buying cage-free eggs, and others are following suit. But there is still work to be done to meet the goal of creating a more humane environment for California’s 15.5 million egg-laying hens.

Voters should approve Proposition 12 on the November ballot. The initiative requires that egg-laying hens be  cage free by 2022 and housed in an environment that allows them a minimum of 144 square inches, equal to a square foot, of space per hen. That standard also would apply to farmers in other states that sell eggs in California.

The proposition doesn’t stop at only protecting hens. It also requires that breeding pigs and calves used for veal be cage-free by 2020 and allowed to roam inside barns. California does not have sizable pork and veal industries, but the proposition would ban the sales from other states not meeting California’s standards.

The proposition isn’t perfect. Midwestern states will challenge California’s ability to impose standards on their farms. And we would greatly prefer that this sort of law be vetted and passed by the Legislature rather than approved by ballot measure. Backers of Prop. 12 keep trying that avenue but run into immovable opposition from both the agriculture industry and opponents who would rather see farm animals and their products not be consumed by people, period.

Because California hens lay 5 billion eggs a year for human consumption, the state has a moral obligation to encourage the most humane conditions possible.

Neither proponents or opponents of the proposition could answer the question of what percentage of California’s egg-laying hens live in cage-free environments. But nationally, since the 2008 measure was passed, the number has increased from 3 percent in 2009 to nearly 13 percent in 2017. Hens’ natural behavior demands that they have scratch areas, perches and nests for laying that cage-free settings allow.

It’s true that hens allowed to roam sometimes attack and even kill other hens, something that cannot happen when they are caged. But as we argued in 2008, while Mother Nature may be cruel, it doesn’t mean humans have to be, too.

The situation is even worse for pigs and calves. The majority of the pork and veal Californians eat comes from farms that confine pigs and calves in gestation crates so small that they do not have the space to move or turn around. The ballot measure allows farmers wanting to sell pork and veal in California sufficient time to convert their operations without doing undue harm to their business.

Some farmers argue that the end result will be increased prices for consumers. But McDonald’s said it wouldn’t be raising prices at all as a result of going with cage-free hens. And even if it did, it’s a small price to pay for substantially improving the lives of millions of hens, pigs and calves. Vote yes on Proposition 12.