Voters Do Not Understand Proposition 2

CALIFORNIA - November's ballot includes several serious issues but Proposition 2 - effectively banning battery cages for hens - is proving especially controversial. Polls indicate it will be adopted by voters who may not understand the issue.
calendar icon 18 August 2008
clock icon 6 minute read

The fate of the state's 19 million egg-laying hens is coming to a polling place near you, wrote Aurelio Rojas on Sacbee on 15 August.

California's November ballot is studded with weighty issues, but none is ruffling feathers like Proposition 2, which would effectively ban farms from raising hens in cages.

United Egg Producers predicts that if Proposition 2 were adopted, the cost of eggs would triple, the industry would be driven from the state and consumers would be deprived of fresh, safe California eggs.

"Californians are already reeling from skyrocketing gas and food prices," said Julie Buckner, a spokeswoman for the 'No-on- Proposition-2' campaign. "The last thing they need is to go to the supermarket and pay higher prices for a dozen eggs."

Supporters, including the Humane Society of the United States, say it would add only about a penny to the cost of an egg – and end the practice of cramming hens into cages so small they can't even turn around, reports the web site.

They argue the egg industry has reaped record profits in the past year while the price of an egg has jumped six cents.

"We're talking about a pretty small (additional) increase to get these animals out of these horrible, crammed cages," said Jennifer Fearing, chief economist for the Humane Society, who is managing the 'Yes-on-Proposition-2' campaign.

Ms Fearing cites a 2005 study commissioned by the industry that concluded the cost of getting rid of cages would be nominal but Ms Buckner explained that those costs were associated with chickens raised for meat – not eggs.

A poll released last month suggests that the initiative will be accepted by a clear margin of 63 per cent in favour to 24 per cent against and 13 per cent undecided.

However, opponents noted that few respondents – only 16 per cent – were aware of the issue. They say the polling was skewed by the measure's original title, The California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which has since been changed by the attorney general's office to 'Standards for Confining Farm Animals'.

If approved, Proposition 2 would also require farmers to increase the space available for calves raised for veal and pregnant pigs. But there is little veal production in California, and farmers have voluntarily phased out confining sows in breeding crates. Supporters say those provisions were added as preventive measures.

The focus of the campaign will be California's egg-laying hens, more than 90 per cent of which are raised in cages.

Proposition 2 would require hens to be housed in a way that allows them to fully spread their wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other hens. Farmers who violate the law could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment or both.

Laws banning crates for breeding pigs have been enacted in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon. But Proposition 2 is the first of its kind and would be a major gain for the animal rights movement.

The two sides are gearing up for a costly campaign battle that is drawing contributors from throughout the nation.

Supporters have raised more than $4.2 million, most of which has come from the Humane Society of the United States. Opponents, including several out-of-state egg producers, have raised $1.7 million.

California is the fifth-largest egg-producing state, after Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, according to the Agriculture Department and American Egg Board, reports Sacbee.

Both sides stipulate the initiative would end the confinement of egg-laying hens in cages in California because bigger cages would be too costly.

A study commissioned by the industry concluded that the measure would obligate farmers to build eight to 16 times more henhouses than the current system.

Proponents of the measure contend egg producers would still make healthy profits. But opponents say the measure would cost nearly 3,400 jobs and take $615 million out of the state's economy.

Ryan Armstrong, whose family has been in the egg-producing business for 60 years in San Diego County, said he would go out of business if the measure passes.

"It'll just make California more dependent on other states and other countries for eggs," Mr Armstrong said. "We're near Mexico, which is probably the No. 1 place that we'd buy our eggs if the initiative passed."

Industry officials say the measure would also increase the likelihood of egg-associated salmonella contamination. They say hens are housed indoors to keep them from contact with wild birds and in an environment that protects them from their own waste.

Ms Fearing cited videos of egg-laying farms that show unclean cage conditions.

"Manure is a problem when it's in such concentration as these places with tens of thousands of animals in the same building," she said.

Large concentrations of chicken manure, supporters of the initiative say, create hazardous amounts of ammonia that can endanger surrounding communities.

A report issued earlier this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health called for a 10-year phase-out of intensive confinement systems such as those used to house egg-laying hens.

The report also called for tighter regulation of factory farm waste, finding that its toxic gases can sicken workers and neighbors.

Supporters of the initiative predict their campaign will overcome the opposition of egg producers.

They used 4,000 volunteers to qualify the measure, collecting nearly twice as many signatures as necessary.

"We will spend what it takes to win," Ms Fearing said. "We have a significant grass-roots force that they don't have."

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