Chicken cages at center of intense Prop. 2 fight

on October 28, 2008

By MAGGIE FAZELI FARD

On first viewing, the TV ad seems to say it all. An animated pig with a soft spot for Motown gives viewers a tour of a macabre farmhouse, where pigs are packed tightly in their crates, a cow is licking its own excrement, and chickens are stacked one over the other. At the heart of the story is an evil farmer who goes as far as to pull a suckling calf away from its mother. The animals look scared and sad.

This place is like a factory, It ain’t a farm at all, the porcine tour guide sings to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” No one deserves this treatment, We hope you hear the call… Proposition 2’s the way.  

Proposition 2, also known the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, is a California state ballot measure that, if passed on Nov. 4, would prohibit the “cruel confinement” of California’s pigs, cows and chickens. The ad supporting Prop. 2, “Uncaged,” has received more than 170,000 YouTube hits since it was posted last month. 

Officials from the Humane Society of the United States, which is sponsoring the measure, say they’re confident that it’s a good first step toward ending animal cruelty on farms — by requiring that all animals have enough space to lie down, stand up, stretch out and turn freely. 

If approved by state voters, the regulations would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, giving farmers six years to make the necessary adjustments, either increasing the amount of space within crates and cages or turning to cage-free practices. 

The “Yes on Prop. 2” campaign boasts support from hundreds of farmers, veterinarians, elected officials, animal protection agencies and celebrities like Dr. Jane Goodall and actor Robert Redford.

But Prop. 2 advocates have also met their fair share of farmers, veterinarians, legislators and even animal rights activists who say Prop. 2 will do more harm than good. 

The first front of opposition is the “No on Prop. 2” coalition, Californians for Safe Food, which claims the measure is “risky, dangerous and costly.” The coalition also asserts that Prop. 2 would increase the cost of eggs, put local egg farmers out of business, require eggs to be imported from Mexico, and spread infectious diseases — ending the production of eggs in California as we know it. 

Why the emphasis on eggs? California produces only small quantities of veal, and the confinement of sows to breeding crates has already been phased out by many farmers, said a “No on Prop. 2” spokesperson.

But California’s $337-million egg industry is the sixth largest in the nation, with more than 19 million hens producing about 5 billion eggs every year.  According to the California Poultry Workgroup, the majority of the state’s egg-layers are kept in cages as part of what is known as the battery system.  In this system, up to 11 hens are held in a single cage, with less than 70 inches of personal space per hen. 

The battery system, Prop. 2 detractors have said, complies with federal animal cruelty regulations and allows California’s farmers to remain competitive in the industry. To move away from convention would mean one of two things: farmers would have to invest in structural changes to provide more space to animals, or switch to a cage-free operation.  

The structural changes proposed by Prop. 2, according to Californians for Safe Food, are potentially costly, as they would reduce the number of egg-laying hens a farmer could keep in the same amount of space, thereby decreasing the number of eggs produced and bringing profits down. Cage-free eggs would also have a negative impact on business, they argue, by making eggs more expensive; a study completed in July by the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center concluded that cage-free eggs cost as much as 25 percent more than eggs coming from caged hens.  

Making matters worse, said a Californians for Safe Food spokesperson, is the fact that these regulations would apply only to eggs produced in California. As such, out-of-state competitors would be able to provide eggs to California for a lower cost, putting California producers out of business and cutting thousands of jobs. 

“The most likely outcome,” stated the study, “is the elimination of almost all of the California egg industry over a few years.”

Not to be outdone, the Humane Society commissioned a study of its own, conducted by poultry specialist Don Bell at the University of California, Riverside. Bell concluded that it would cost only one additional cent per egg to not confine egg-laying hens to battery cages.

“While it’s possible that giving these animals better living conditions may increase consumer prices by a few pennies per dozen,” states the “Yes on 2″ Web site, “the hidden cost of such inhumane confinement is increased cruelty, and it’s the animals who are paying that extra price.”

Additionally, Prop. 2 advocates believe the proposed regulations would inspire other states to follow suit in giving farm animals the room to stretch out in their cages. 

A heated debate has been taking place between both sides, with each claim being countered by the opposition. “No on 2” campaign literature, for example, says the measure, by encouraging farmers to go cage-free and move their chickens outdoors, will increase the likelihood of exposure to infections like bird flu and Salmonella by bringing the farmed birds in contact with wild, infected ones.  Prop. 2 advocates say the chickens are not required to be kept outside, where they would be exposed to avian infections, and that Salmonella is actually more prevalent among caged flocks than cage-free ones. Opponents say Prop. 2 will drive business out of California; advocates point out that among the “No on 2” campaign’s contributors are out-of-state egg interests. Advocates say giving chickens room to spread their wings is only humane; opponents say that if you give chickens too much room, they’ll peck at their own feces and at each other.

With arguments raging regarding California’s economy and its public health, experts who can’t agree and studies that don’t add up, the question seems to boil down to what rights farm animals really have. 

But before turning to animal rights activists for the answer, it is worth noting that even they are not united behind Prop. 2. 

“Proposition 2, if passed, will only make the public feel better about animal exploitation and will result in increased exploitation,” said Gary L. Francione, a law and philosophy professor at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. and the creator of the blog Animal Rights: An Abolitionist Approach. “Animals will continue to be tortured; the only difference will be that the torture will carry the stamp of approval from the Humane Society of the United States.”

Proposition 2 will be on the California ballot on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 4. 

For more information:

Yes! on Prop 2 

Californians for Safe Food 

“Uncaged” TV ad 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Lydia on November 2, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Good story–your photo too. I was actually surprised that California is only the 6th largest egg producer. I would have thought we had more hens here. Anyway..very good work. I feel like I know the issue well after reading this–the pluses and the minuses of Prop2.

    lc



  2. Bird Flu Maps on December 1, 2008 at 3:27 am

    Hey!, I found your blog via Google while searching for bird flu maps and your post regarding cages at center of intense Prop. 2 fight | Oakland North looks very interesting for me



  3. Chicken Coop on July 4, 2009 at 8:32 am

    thanks for your great post
    I am completely in love with chickens . But I realize that marriage between man and chickens is considered weird, so I will just keep
    raising them on my backyard 🙂



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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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