"Breakfast Collage," 25" x 30" Copyright by Sharon McEachern
I don't want to eat eggs from miserable hens. I remember research from the University of California - Davis a few years ago that said eggs from stressed chickens are bad for human health -- higher cholesterol and full of stress hormones. And now, thanks to Californians we can have happier, less-stressed hens. Well, they'll be somewhat less stressed come January 1, 2015.
Close to two-thirds of the state's population voted in favor of a proposition requiring that laying hens, pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal be kept in larger enclosures. This larger space will have to be enough to allow the animals to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs (are wings considered limbs?), according to the law. Although other states -- Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon -- have passed similar laws for swine and veal, California is the first state to mandate that all egg-producing chickens have more space to roam.
It won't happen for the same chickens that are laying eggs today. They won't see the effects of Proposition 2, which was just passed by California votersin a 2-to-1 landside. Egg-laying hens are killed after about two years, when their egg production drops. Typically they are sent to a tallow plant (where animal fat is collected for making candles, soap and lubricants) or ground into animal feed, says the Sacramento Bee. Proposition 2 doesn't take effect for another six years.
WHAT'S THE CONTROVERSY?
The newest controversy is the result of California's Proposition 8, in which Californians voted to prohibit gay marriage -- again. Responding to this sad irony, many angry Californians have been marching throughout the state ever since the Nov. 4 election. As one voter said: "It is disgusting to me that so many people went into a booth and voted to extend rights to chickens and with the same motion voted to take away the rights of a group of humans."
Another voter, describing democracy as messy, said that the irony of "No" on gay marriage and "YES" for roomier cages for chickens reminded him that: "Several years ago there was a story of a woman jogging in southern California who was killed by a mountain lion. The fund for the slain cougar's orphaned pups received more donations than the fund for the woman's orphaned children."
Jennifer Fearing, chief economist for the U.S. Humane Society, the major backer of the initiative said: "This is the most sweeping animal-protection measure ever passed by ballot initiative in U.S. history."
Farmers and ranchers in the egg business worry that the measure vilified them. Some industrial farmers warn that the new regulations will result in higher costs that could cripple California's thriving egg industry and put them out of business.
California's U.S. $337 million egg industry produces about 6 percent of the nation's table eggs, according to National Geographic News. And more than 90 percent of California's 20 million egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages. "Animal rights activists say the cages, which hold anywhere from three to ten hens, are often so small that birds rub off their feathers while presssed against the wires," reports National Geographic News. "And on some farms, cages are stacked on top of each other, forcing hens in bottom cages to live in waste, according to the activists."
Gene Baur, president of New York-based Farm Sanctuary, a rescue organization for farm animals, which also backed the California measure said: "Egg-laying hens are packed so tightly that they're given less space than the size of a sheet (of paper) to live their lives."
Egg-laying hens typically live eight hens to a 4-square-foot cage, reports the Sacramento Bee. For the chicken getting out of a cage means a nest, a perch and a place to take a dust bath. Without these basics, hens get stressed. The Bee explained that a current 60,000-square-foot cage-free barn might hold 30,000 chickens. The same barn with stacks of cages could house as many as 150,000 hens. This means that raising cage-free hens will require substantially more space, more barns and cost more money.
For a cage-free system, it costs an average of 25 cents more to produce a dozen eggs, according to a University of California study. However, the retail price spread is much costlier -- today's cage-free eggs that sell for an average of $1.35 more per dozen than standard eggs, reports the USDA. One study from U.C. - Davis predicted that the measure could actually wipe out California's egg industry, resulting in the loss of 5,750 jobs.
In addition to studies showing that the risk of diseases such as salmonella decreases in uncaged birds, proponents of Proposition 2 say the economic fears are exaggerated, pointing to another study that puts the increased cost at less than one cent per egg.
Proponent Baur of Farm Sanctuary believes "some of these crazy calculations are based on the idea that hens all have to stretch their wings at the same time" in new housing systems. "What I believe producers will do is go to an aviary system, and purchase nest boxes where the birds will be allowed to fly a little bit and be able to move around to give them a more natural life," Bauer told National Geographic News.
I agree with Tom Philpott who wrote in environmental news' Gristmill :
"...industrial-farming interests are squawking like hens about to lay a huge egg. That the industry finds such a commonsense requirement (minimal room for hens to move around) intolerable reveals just how dependent it is on imposing cramped conditions. The backlash against Prop. 2 also betrays a (very encouraging) fear that California's code will go nationwide."