Friday, July 11, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: Analysis and Viewpoints Pro and Con on the Small-Cage Hen Ban Voter Initiative Set for the November, 2008 Ballot in California

As we wrote about in this May 8, 2008 story, the Humane Society of the United States has qualified a ballot initiative, called Proposition 2, on the November ballot in California that if passed would ban egg producers from using small, battery cages for the birds. If passed inNovember, the ballot initiative, called the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act, would take effect in California in 2015. The law also bans the use of small crates in veal raising, along with the use of confining gestation boxes or cages for pregnant hogs. (California raises lots of chickens, both for egg-laying and to be sold as broiler fryers and roasters, but few hogs or veal calves.)

Since 2002, the U.S. states of Florida, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon have passed laws similar to the California ballot initiative. Those laws however only outlaw the use of the small veal crates and the confining boxes for pregnant hogs. Therefore, if the Proposition 2 ballot initiative is passed in November, California will become the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of the battery cages for egg-laying hens.

A number of animal rights and environmental groups have joined the Humane Society of the United States in supporting the small-cage ban initiative, which will be voted on by California voters in November. These groups include the Sierra Club, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and others. The California State Democratic Party also supports the battery cage ban initiative, as do numerous city councils in cities throughout the state.

The United Egg Producers, a national trade association which represents numerous egg farmers in California and throughout the U.S., is currently lining up opposition to the November ballot initiative, which if passed would require the egg-producers to stop using the small cages in 2015, giving them over six years to make the transition.

Among the arguments the egg producers association makes is that currently about one-third of all eggs sold in retail stores and used by restaurants and other institutions in California are shipped in from out of state Since the ballot initiative doesn't prevent supermarkets and other retail stores from selling eggs produced from hens raised in small cages out of state, the group says the law would essentially amount to an anti-competitive measure against California egg producers, since out of state egg farmers would ship in eggs produced by battery-cage raised hens at cheaper prices, thereby forcing many California egg producers out of business.

This does seem to be a flaw in the language of the ballot initiative. For example, in the United Kingdom, which passed a law outlawing the use of battery cages which goes into effect in 2012, the nation's food retailers will be prevented from selling eggs from hens raised in battery cages regardless of where the eggs come from, as part of the comprehensive legislation.

The egg producers group also says switching from small cage egg production to cage-free will double and possibly triple the retail cost of California-produced eggs to consumers. Egg prices for conventional, battery cage-raised eggs have already increased by about 25% in just the last year in California due to increased feed costs and the soaring price of fuel, energy and fertilizer, among other things, according to the California State Department of Agriculture.

The Humane Society of America counters this claim of a doubling -to-tripling of retail egg prices if the measure passes in November by a study prepared for an industry-wide meeting in 2006 as evidence that the cost to switch over to cage-free farming would be minimal. The report claims that the difference between constructing and operating a cage-free facility compared to a caged one amounts to less than one cent per egg.

Arnie Riebli, the managing owner of Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, in Northern California, which produces and sells cage-free eggs and eggs produced by hens confined in battery cages, says he disagrees with those figures and doesn't understand how they were calculated. Rather, he believes the cost of cage-free production is closer to double that of caged production. Even so, he says that while initial costs are higher, he receives a higher profit margin on cage-free eggs because they command a higher wholesale price from retailers.

Egg-producer Riebli argues the egg producer association point of view, saying that if required to raise only cage-free birds, his business will lose its competitive edge to out-of-state producers. "Every other state is going to sit out there and ship more eggs in here," he says. "They're not stopping it. They're just moving it somewhere else."

The Humane Society is gaining backing for the measure however from numerous Democratic Party state politicians, veterinarians, businessmen and woman, and even some farmers, along with nearly every animal welfare organization, numerous environmental groups, and thousands of California consumers.

One key factor as the whether or not the battery cage ban passes in November is the continuing soaring cost of food. Food prices are a sensitive issue with California consumers, who also are voters, currently in the Golden State, which is experiencing a severe economic downturn at present.

California political observers say if the battery cage ban opposition groups can make a strong case to voters that if the ballot initiative passes the price of eggs at the supermarket--which has already risen by about 25% in the last year alone--will double or triple--they stand a good chance of defeating the measure.

Supporters say California voters/consumers are ready to ban the battery cage practice, sighting surveys they've said they have conducted which show support for the measure by the state's voters when they view photographs or video of the hens in the tiny cages, which don't allow the birds to move, turn around or even groom themselves in.

Julia Olmstead, a writer and graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism, recently wrote an opinion piece focusing on the environmental aspects of the battery cage ban ballot initiative. Ms. Olmstead, who is a writer with the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, a pro-environmental organization, suggests in her piece that voting yes on the small-cage ban offers environmental problems, and that even though she supports free-range chicken-raising and buys free-range eggs, she isn't likely to vote yes on the measure in November. You can read her opinion piece which first appeared a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times, here.

On the other side--pro battery cage ballot initiative--is Ed Boks. Mr. Boks is the respected general manager of Los Angeles' Animal Services Department, and was one of the first proponents of the small cage, veal crate, and hog gestation box ban ballot initiative.

In an article from his blog, published nearly a year ago, Mr. Boks lays out why California voters should support the ballot measure. He wrote the piece before the measure qualified for the November ballot. However, he is one of the stronger and most respected proponents for the initiative's passage this November, which is why we bring you his opinion even though his piece was published some time ago. You can read the piece from Mr Boks' blog here.

Additionally, the Humane Society of the United States and its affiliated group supporting Proposition 2, the hen battery cage, veal crate and hog gestation box ban ballot initiatiive, offers its arguments for the bans on its website, which you can view here.

From the industry's perspective, you also can read a report on a recent study about the possible economic effects in California of Proposition 2, conducted by the United Egg Producers' group here.

Most California political observers say they expect the ballot initiative to start receiving lots of attention in the media and by voters right after Labor Day, which is about the time Americans generally start to focus on the fall elections. Since there's a Presidential election this year, U.S. voter turnout is expected to be higher overall than normal, with many observers believing it could be the highest it's been in the U.S. in decades, come November.

The battery cage ballot initiative is important not only because of the effects it will have in California--which is the number one agricultural state in America, and the fifth-largest producer of eggs. Even more important from the larger view, is that California is a trend-setting state in the U.S. when it comes to ethical, animal rights and environmental laws. Should California's voters pass the small-cage ban legislation in November, expect to see numerous state governments throughout the U.S.--especially in progressive states--create similar legislation.

The European Union passed a battery cage ban, with all member states ratifying the law, a couple years ago. That ban goes into effect in most of western Europe in 2012. Already in the United Kingdom, many egg producers are transitioning from the small cages, to new, larger ones which give the birds enough space to move around, turn around, and practice natural behaviors like grooming.

The issue is much hotter in Europe, and particularly in the UK, than it is in the United States currently. However, we expect the publicity this fall from the California battery cage ban ballot initiative--regardless if it passes or fails--to increase interest in the issue among consumers in the U.S.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Resources:
Click here to read a selection of previously published pieces about the battery cage issue. Click here to read a couple past stories about the battery cage issue in the United Kingdom (just scroll down a bit from the top at the link).

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