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Cage-Free California?

New Bill Augments Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act


Monday, July 19, 2010

The plan for a cage-free California is still incubating. But animal welfare activists have some good news in the meantime: A new egg bill was signed into law on July 6.

The bill, A.B. 1437, seems to be an annotation of Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act that passed with a precedent-breaking 64 percent vote in 2008. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced the bill to the Assembly on February 27, 2009.

Prop 2 phases out the state’s production of eggs from hens in cages. (Though it effectively implies cage-free conditions, it doesn’t explicitly enforce them. Farmers can augment their crates in such a way that satisfies the law, or they can go entirely cage-free — as long as the hens are able to stand up, turn around, and spread their wings without touching another hen or sides of an enclosure.)

But it left a hole: While California can’t produce eggs from caged hens, it can still sell them.

The new legislation stonewalls people from circumventing Prop 2 by mandating that all shelled eggs sold in California, starting January 1, 2015, come from cage-free hens, and that egg producers can only import eggs from states adhering to California’s minimum standards.

Both Prop 2 and A.B. 1437 will likely have an effect on California’s egg economy. Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign predicts the bill will have a minimal effect on the consumer. The added cost of production will amount to less than a penny per egg in retail, according to Shapiro, quoting the United Egg Producer’s economic study.

Lee Heller, local animal welfare activist predicts that, at the same time, local egg producers might see a boost in business. Local farms, he said, are less likely to be out-competed by farmers who raise chickens more cheaply and inhumanely. The new legislation would level the playing field.

The California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies for losses incurred by state mandates; this, however, will not be the case for A.B. 1437. “The only costs that may be incurred,” it states, “will be incurred because this act creates a new crime or infraction,” the new crime being a violation of provision — selling eggs from conditions that don’t comply with California’s minimum standards.

The Santa Barbara County Bureau, which opposed Prop 2, chose to remain neutral on the legislation.

It’s expected that some organizations will be displeased with further regulation. A common argument is that cage-free environments are more susceptible to salmonella. Shapiro disagrees, citing that there have been seven studies all finding higher rates of salmonella in caged facilities than in cage-free. “It may cost an extra penny,” he said, but the legislation will mitigate “the hidden cost of increased health risk.”

The bill contained a section (§25995) declaring numerous affirmations that cage-free hens will improve the health, safety, and welfare of California consumers.

Somewhat inexplicably, there aren’t very many egg-producers in Santa Barbara County. There is Lily’s Eggs, a Fillmore-based Farmers’ Market tender, that has been cage-free since the farm’s inception about 30 years ago, according to their owner. Rosemary Farms in Santa Maria is also cage-free, according to their operations manager.

Grocers have made concerted efforts. Trader Joe’s, in 2005, declared that all Trader Joe’s brand eggs will come from cage-free hens.

Lee Heller addends that though “cage-free” and “free-range” are sometimes used interchangeably, there is an important difference, and the images evoked by either term are likely far removed from the chickens’ reality.

A “cage-free” designation mandates that chickens can’t be kept in cages, but it doesn’t govern much else. “Free-range” means access to the outdoors, but various media outlets (Michael Pollan, for example) have emphasized that some “free-range” living conditions are structured to deter chickens from going outside. Heller gives the example that chickens kept in barns are “cage-free” but never see the light of day.

I asked Heller what the ideal world for chicken farms would look like: “I would like to see much more stringent standards,” she said. “Chickens freely grazing, able to take baths, able to roost, able to nest — all the natural behaviors chickens behave in.”

Heller knows, as does Shapiro, that the Prop 2/A.B. 1437 legislation is a step, not a finish line. Furthermore, with enforcement scheduled for 2015, it would be imprudent to count one’s chickens before they hatch.

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