Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: Small Hen Cage Ban Ballot Measure Will Go to Voters in California

A coalition of organizations and consumers led by the Humane Society of the United States has obtained enough signatures from registered voters in California to qualify a measure on the November, 2008 ballot that if passed would ban the use of small or battery-style hen cages in the state's egg industry as of 2015.

That ballot measure got more than the needed 433,971 signatures required to get the initiative placed on the November ballot, the California Secretary of State's Office has announced.

The ballot measure being promoted by the Humane Society of the United States and allied groups would require that cages provide enough room for hens to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs, according to the language of the initiative.

The egg-laying hens aren't able to move around in the above ways in the small cages currently used by nearly all egg-producers in California and in the rest of the United States.

Although there are some producers who raise and market cage-free eggs in California and the U.S., such practices are currently minimal. Additionally, very few U.S. egg producers use larger cages such as those more commonly used in the United Kingdom and in other Western European countries.

The coalition led by the Humane Society of the U.S. says the ability of hens to stand up or turn around is impossible in the small cages currently used by the majority of egg producers in California and the U.S. The small cages allow the hens about 67 square inches of cage floor space per-hen. That's about the size of an average piece of letter paper.

Paul Shapiro, director of the Human Society's factory farming campaign, says California voters will have a choice this November regarding whether they want to "enact a very modest anti-cruelty measure that would improve the lives of millions of animals in California."

Most small cage egg-producing farmers and companies in California are opposing the measure.

Among those in opposition to the ballot initiative measure are a number of industry leaders in the San Joaquin Valley, which is not only California and the United States' number one agricultural producing region, but the most diverse and largest overall farm crop producing region in the world on a total dollar basis.

These egg producers argue the small cages protect the hens from injury and disease. Further, they say consumers in California can buy cage-free eggs if they choose. These opponents to the small cage ban voter initiative also argue if passed in November the measure will increase the price of eggs significantly for consumers.

Egg prices have already soared in the last year in California, as they have throughout the United States. According to the California Department of Agriculture, retail prices of eggs in the state's supermarkets have increased by 25-30% in the last year.

This is due in large part to the same reasons food prices are soaring throughout the world: rapidly rising oil and fuel prices, more demand for grain than supply, the conversion of numerous acres of corn crops to corn used for ethanol fuel rather than animal feed, and a few other factors.

Egg-laying hens in the United States are fed a diet composed primarily of corn.

Merced County, which is located in the Northern San Joaquin valley about 40 miles from Fresno and about 125 miles from San Francisco, is the number one egg-producing region in California. Nearly 100% of all the eggs produced in the county are conventionally-produced by housing hens in the small cages. The county produced about 1.88 billion eggs in 2006, the latest year figures are available for, according to the state's agricultural department.

Stanislaus County, which literally is right next door, is the state's number two egg-producing county. Egg producers in Stanislaus County also overwhelming use small cages for their hens. In 2006, about 605 million eggs were produced in the county.

Other major egg-producing counties in California include San Joaquin County, which is next door to Stanislaus County in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Nearly all of the egg producers in the county also us the small cage method for hens. San Joaquin County produced about 337 million eggs in 2006.

Fresno County and a couple counties in the far northern part of California also have egg production as part of their agriculture.

Although more egg producers in the San Joaquin Valley have started cage-free operations in recent years, cage-free egg farming doesn't even equal 4% of the total egg production in California. In fact, most of the cage-free producers are small, niche farmers in the northern portion of the state, located an hour or so from San Francisco.

The ballot measure would not affect chickens raised for meat, it only pertains to egg-laying hens and the small cages the animals are kept in.

Sponsors and supporters of the ballot initiative say they chose 2015, seven years from today, as the deadline for the elimination of the small cages and the likely use of the larger, roomer hen cages, to go into law so as to give egg producers plenty of time to phase in the change at their operations.

Ballot measure a first in USA

The California ballot initiative is the first proposed law in the U.S. to ban the small hen cages. California is unique among nearly all other states in America in that it has the ballot initiative process, which groups, politicians and citizens can use to go around the state's legislature in order to get laws passed they're in favor of.

All it takes is to file the proper paperwork and get a fixed number of valid signatures from registered California voters to get a measure put on the ballot, such as how the Humane Society of the U.S. and its allied groups did with the small hen cage ban measure.

Depending on the particular measure, all it takes for a ballot initiative measure to become law is a simple majority vote by the state's voters. Some ballot initiatives, such as those for bonds to be used for specific purposes like building roads or bridges for example, require a two-thirds majority vote of the people to become law.

Additionally, when a ballot initiative passes by a majority vote of California voters, the state's Governor can't veto it like he can veto a bill passed into law by the California State Legislature.

As California goes, so goes the nation?

Since California is a trend setting state for ethical food issues and legislation, players in the egg and food and grocery industries nationwide will be paying very close attention as to if the small hen cage ban passes or not in November. If it does, we're likely to see numerous similar measures being taken up by state legislative bodies throughout the U.S.

Small cage bans in the UK and Western Europe

Unlike in the United Kingdom specifically and Western Europe in general, the issue of banning the small cages hasn't been a hot button one in the U.S., until now with the California measure qualifying for the November ballot.

For example, all of the UK's leading supermarket chains--Tesco, Wal-Mart-owned Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrissons, Waitrose, Somerfield, the Co-op and others--have agreed to stop selling eggs produced in the small cages by 2012.

As a result of this agreement among the retailers, the UK's egg industry pledged it would stop using the small cages altogether before the end of 2012. There is now a law formalizing this agreement which will take effect in 2012 in the UK.

Already, many egg producers in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe are using larger cages which allow the hens to walk around a bit, turn, stretch and do the things called for in the California small cage ban measure. There have been few if any reports in the UK of the hens injuring themselves in these larger cages like the Northern San Joaquin Valley egg-producers suggest will happen with the use of the larger cages instead of the small ones.

Cage-free eggs also are much more popular in the UK and other parts of Western Europe, compared to the U.S. and even to California, which is the leading consuming state of the eggs raised from hens who aren't confined to the small cages.

Earlier this year, two UK supermarket chains, Waitrose and Sainsbury's, reported sales of cage-free eggs in their respective supermarkets were reaching about 49% of all egg sales in the stores. In other words, nearly half of all eggs sold in the two retailers' supermarkets are now cage-free.

An egg fight coming up

With the small hen cage ban initiative now approved by the state of California and set to go on the November ballot, we expect to see a real battle over the measure by its proponents and opponents, who thus far are primarily egg producers and their trade associations.

It will be interesting to see if the state's huge retail food and grocery industry gets involved or decides its better to stay on the sidelines for fear of alienating thousands of consumers regardless of which side it were to choose.

Voters, who also are obviously consumers, will decide the issue however. And because the November, 2008 election includes the Presidential election--and one that's looking to be one of the hottest in sometime in the U.S.--there should be record turnout at the polls in California and throughout the U.S. this year.

Additionally, the soaring cost of food at the supermarket also is likely to influence how California voters vote on the small hen cage ban measure this November. If those campaigning against it are able to make a convincing enough argument that banning the cages will increase the retail prices of eggs even further, they could win.

On the other hand, animal rights issues are important to California voters, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area and major portions of Southern California. Therefore, its very possible animal rights could trump potential price increases come November, resulting in the measure winning. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm finding 100s of pictures of battery caged hens on google, but I can't find any photos of an alterative. Do you let them just roam around like cats? What is the alternative?