The headlines in the mainstream Associated Press about the change in the California Chicken laws was:
The story which appeared in local papers nationwide focuses on how eggs will cost more because California now requires a minimum amount of space per bird. The “big news” is all about dollars and sense! The average retail price nationwide ranges from 15 cents to 20 cents per egg and economists predict the new California law will cause a jump in price from 10 to 40% making the highest price it may reach is close to 28 cents!
We know that from the perspectives of pure economics it makes sense to mistreat animals to squeeze as much profit as possible from the enterprse. Thanks to Mark Bitman for printing “another side of this story.”
The most significant animal welfare law in recent history — California’s Prop 2 — takes effect today. The measure, which passed by a landslide vote in 2008, requires egg and some meat producers to confine their animals in far more humane conditions than they did before. No longer will baby calves (veal) or gestational pigs be kept in crates so small they cannot turn around and, perhaps more significantly, egg-laying hens may not be held in “battery” cages that prevent them from spreading their wings.
The regulations don’t affect only hens kept in California. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that extended the protections of Prop 2 to out-of-state birds: You cannot sell an egg in California from a hen kept in extreme confinement anywhere. For an industry that has been able to do pretty much what it wants, this is a big deal: It bans some of the most egregious practices.
Does limiting confinement for hens mean the end of cages? Maybe. It might become impractical for growers to build bigger cages; that is, it might be easier simply to keep hens in groups that meet the new minimum area required per bird, and so keep the hens “cage free.” That’s not a panacea, but it is an improvement.
The new minimum is not specified in numbers, but the courts have said that it “establishes a clear test that any law enforcement officer can apply, and that test does not require the law enforcement officer to have the investigative acumen of Columbo to determine if an egg farmer is in violation.” Hens must be able to spread their wings without touching a cage or another bird.
There is, however, another new state regulation — the so-called shell egg food safety regulation, aimed at reducing salmonella — enacted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This requires a minimum of 116 square inches per bird, compared with the current 67 square inches, which is less space than an 8-by-10 photo, and just a tad more than a standard iPad.
Prop 2 trumps this rule, and birds probably need more than 116 square inches to spread their wings. In fact, many experts think something closer to 200 square inches is more realistic. But some farmers may think they can get away with 116; law enforcement will determine whether they’re right, and noncompliance is a criminal offense.
The new regulations will probably raise the price of eggs. Surprisingly, as producers in California switch production systems to comply with the new law, eggs raised by so-called conventional means sometimes cost more than cage-free eggs. This belies the arguments that the conversion process is difficult or prohibitively expensive; it just shows that many producers failed to take advantage of the five years between the extension of the new housing standards to all birds, and its taking effect, to adequately prepare. What have they been doing instead? Predictably, filing lawsuits fighting Prop 2, all of which have failed.
That Prop 2 is supported by a majority of people in the country’s biggest ag state, and that its legitimacy has been supported by courts, shows the direction in which the raising of animals is headed. Gestation crates are on their way out, and battery cages will soon join them. With this measure, the table is set for similar action in states all over the country.
“We’ve worked on passing anti-confinement laws in 10 states now,” says Paul Shapiro, a spokesperson at the Humane Society of the United States. At least three other states are to take up similar legislation in 2015.
The most important part of the new law may be that every whole egg sold in California must adhere to the standards set by Prop 2, regardless of where it’s from. And since California can’t raise all the eggs eaten by its citizens, millions of those eggs — perhaps as many as a third consumed in the state — will come from elsewhere. From Iowa, for example, where more than 14 billion eggs are produced each year. (Interesting: There are just over 3 million people in Iowa, and nearly 60 million laying hens.) There has been talk of shortages, but they would be short-lived.
So, in California, just as you had to meet higher emission standards than required by federal law if you wanted to sell cars, now you must meet higher welfare standards for hens if you want to sell eggs. Whether farmers comply, or disobey, or leave the business remains to be seen. But Prop 2 means a new norm; eventually it will be, well, normal.
Just how high are the standards set by Prop 2? “By itself, the law means that many millions of animals will no longer be held in cramped cages, and that’s huge,” says Mr. Shapiro. “But the message it sends to the factory farming industry is clear: Business as usual — that is, subjecting animals to torturous conditions for their entire lives — is no longer going to be acceptable.”