California's Proposition 2 may be death knell for state's egg industry

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Voters in California on Nov. 4, by nearly a two-thirds majority, approved a measure requiring the state’s $340-million-a-year egg industry to completely restructure housing for 20 million laying hens at a cost that may reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

The stated purpose of Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act, was to "prohibit the cruel confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs." But those concerned with the health of farm animals disagreed over Proposition 2’s likely effects on the welfare of egg-laying hens, and there were concerns the costs of the changeover in housing and management practices may force egg farmers to leave the business.

Proposition 2, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2015, related to calves raised for veal and pregnant pigs as well as egg-laying hens. It bans the use of crates used to confine calves raised for veal and gestation crates for sows. Similar measures relating to calves and pigs were adopted earlier in Florida, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado. The veal and pork industries in California are small, though, and the housing and management practices Proposition 2 bans for calves and pigs were rare in the state. The proposition’s most telling and controversial effect will be on the state’s egg industry.

The proposition stated covered animals must be housed so each may fully extend its limbs without touching the side of an enclosure, including, in the case of egg-laying hens, "fully spreading both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens." This requirement would prohibit the use of battery cages, which is the industry norm across the United States. It was estimated more than 90% of California’s egg-laying hens are housed in battery cages. The same was true for the United States as a whole.

Proponents of Proposition 2, most prominently the Humane Society of the United States, asserted confining thousands of laying hens in cages as is the practice in most egg-producing farms was cruel to the animals and fostered the spread of diseases that may affect humans as well as the hens. Proponents also asserted "factory farms" had adverse impacts on the environment.

Opponents asserted modern systems for housing laying hens were designed for proper care and treatment of the animals and provided ample space, food, light and sanitation. They pointed out cage-free housing may expose hens and eggs to greater risk of coming into contact with Salmonella bacteria. Also, if laying hens were to be housed out of doors even for a portion of the day, incidental contact with migratory birds may raise the risk of hens contracting avian influenza or other diseases. Opponents also pointed out California statutes already prohibit cruelty to animals and apply penalties to those found to be violating the law.

The cost of changing to cage-free or other alternative housing methods was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Some farmers may face additional costs related to acquisition of land to accommodate flocks at the current sizes.

Agricultural economists at the University of California, Davis, estimated costs of egg production would be 20% higher in cage-free systems than in battery cage systems because of higher feed costs, higher hen mortality, higher direct housing costs and higher labor costs. Higher production costs would require higher egg prices to the consumer, and higher-priced California eggs would be at a competitive disadvantage when compared with eggs produced in neighboring states or in Mexico, where farmers wouldn’t be required to abandon battery cage systems.

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer, Humane Society of the U.S., said, "California voters have taken a stand for decency and compassion and said that the systemic mistreatment of animals on factory farms cannot continue. All animals deserve humane treatment, including animals raised for food."

Matt Sampson, a spokesman for Californians for Safe Food, which organized the opposition to Proposition 2, said, "The special interest group that pushed Proposition 2 will now go back to Washington and leave it to California’s farmers, veterinarians, regulators and lawyers to interpret what this poorly conceived and vaguely worded initiative actually means for the real people it affects."

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, "The realities of modern, family-owned and family-operated agriculture and the professional dedication of our farm families are largely not understood by America’s consumers. As an industry, we must help non-farmers understand our industry. While caring for their animals is the clear No. 1 priority for America’s livestock producers, it is also clear correcting misinformation from those opposed to modern farming is a close second."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 25, 2008, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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