SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When California's voters head to the polls tomorrow they'll most likely have the presidential election top-of-mind, but there's also a contentious battle brewing down the ballot, one that has pitted conventional egg producers against animal rights activists for the better part of a year.
As SN reported in December 2007, the “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act,” if enacted, will prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Essentially, this would require California's pork processors to eliminate the use of gestation crates; the state's veal processors to eliminate the use of veal crates; and, most notably, the state's conventional egg producers to eliminate the use of battery cages. Farming operations would have until Jan. 1, 2015, to implement the new space requirements for their animals. California is the nation's sixth-largest egg producer.
Both supporters and opponents of the initiative argue that they are concerned about the welfare of both the animals and consumers, but the groups have clashed bitterly over the ballot initiative during the past year.
The American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill., has spent heavily in an effort to rally the opposition this year. Mitch Head, spokesman for United Egg Producers, Alpharetta, Ga., said he believes most of California's egg industry, in addition to egg producers in other states, are opposed to the initiative, which will have implications on the total U.S. egg supply if passed, partly by making eggs more expensive in California, and forcing egg suppliers to shut down their existing operations or, in some cases, exit the business.
“They're worried that if modern egg housing is banned in California, then that steamroller may head toward other states as well, so they're opposed to that,” Head told SN.
“They're also concerned from a food safety standpoint — there's no question that if Proposition 2 passes, we would need to import more eggs into the U.S. to cover our supply needs, and some of those would more likely come in from Mexico. And certainly, Mexico does not have a great track record in terms of food safety, and even has a worse track record in terms of animal welfare.”
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, claim that concerns about higher wholesale and retail costs are being exaggerated, and that most voters support the proposition.
“The polls show, and our grassroots outreach confirms, that the vast majority of California voters support Proposition 2,” said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farming campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, Washington.
Opponents have listed various reasons to vote no on Proposition 2, including lack of specificity, food safety concerns and increased production costs, which could lead retailers to purchase more eggs from out of state or, as Head argued, from Mexico, leading to a further decline in the state's agricultural economy.
“Essentially, under Prop 2, both cage and cage-free systems operated in California would essentially be banned. The only production that would be allowed under Prop 2 is free range,” Head said. He argued that the current wording of the proposition is too vague — with no specified amount of space per hen and no specific bans on cages.
“There's, No. 1, not enough land in California for those hens that we [currently have] in modern housing systems. No. 2, the cost of that land is astronomical. And three, we wouldn't be able to get the permits — environmental, water and other — to actually operate [these larger facilities]. So, those are going to be the problems,” Head said.
Groups such as HSUS acknowledge that part of the goal of the bill is to ban the small battery cages used in many conventional egg production facilities, but have been dismissive of arguments that the proposition will devastate California's egg industry.
“Proposition 2, as it relates to egg-laying hens, requires that the bird be able to spread her wings without touching other birds or the sides of an enclosure,” Shapiro said.
“The opposition would have us believe that this means the birds must be able to simultaneously spread their wings. Even if such a synchronized ballet of wing-spreading were possible, it's not required by Prop 2. It's also the case that cage-free laying hens [in existing California cage-free systems] are able to fully spread their wings.”
Supporters believe that California should implement basic standards for humane confinement and argue that the proposition would better ensure food safety, saying that overcrowded animals in confined spaces are a breeding ground for disease.
While there are clearly two different opinions on this initiative, both sides seem to believe that it has the potential to affect the food industry across the board.
“Passing Prop 2 in California will not only reduce animal cruelty and improve food safety in the state, it will lead to national reforms in the agribusiness industry as well,” Shapiro told SN.
Head said he believes the initiative is a very extreme measure that will cost the industry.
“[HSUS] has said it would be the stepping-stone to passing federal legislation that would cover many different foods, related to their vision of what animal rights legislation should be in this country. So I think it's a huge issue not only for the egg industry but for all of the food industry.”