Agribusiness fights California proposal that expands animal rights

SAN FRANCISCO -- A California ballot measure to improve conditions for farm animals has generated national opposition from agribusiness interests.

If passed Tuesday, Proposition 2 would prevent California farmers from confining egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and veal calves in ways that don't allow them to lie, stand and extend their limbs.

The proposal has grown into the most expensive animal-rights ballot measure ever, with both sides raising almost $8 million each. Some opponents are concerned that it could spur national changes.

"If it passes in California, Oregon will be the next one … and it'll spread through the nation," says Gordon Satrum, co-owner of Willamette Egg Farms in Canby, Ore.

Willamette, like other egg and pork producers nationwide, has contributed money to fund the opposing campaign.

Other measures banning restrictive crates for pigs and veal calves have passed in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon. California will be the test case for hens. The state doesn't have much of a veal or pork industry but supplies almost 6% of the nation's eggs.

Proposition 2 opponents, who include some poultry veterinarians and academic experts, say the changes would drive egg prices far higher and put California producers out of business because they couldn't compete with out-of-state rivals or Mexican imports.

They also say that giving hens so much more room — as required by the measure — will increase the risk of salmonella and avian flu outbreaks because hens would be more exposed to their feces and that of migrating birds, which spread avian flu.

"It has a number of consequences that has the potential to be hazardous to bird health and to human health," says Nancy Reimers, a California poultry veterinarian who's also a paid consultant to the coalition leading the opposition, Californians for Safe Food.

Small cages at issue

The measure is being pushed by the Humane Society of the United States and is supported by other animal protection groups and the California Veterinary Medical Association.

Earlier this year, the Humane Society gained national recognition for exposing animal cruelty at a California cattle slaughterhouse, which led to the company's closure, the biggest beef recall ever and new regulations regarding the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle.

Proposition 2 supporters say it's inhumane to keep hens, pigs and calves in crates slightly larger than their bodies. They also say the changes, to be phased in by 2015, may lead to only small increases in egg prices and that salmonella risks drop when hens are not caged. The proposition doesn't require the hens to be outdoors, they say, so no increased avian flu risk is likely.

Current conditions "immobilize animals" and prevent natural behaviors, says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society. He says pigs and calves are confined such that they can't turn around, and that caged hens are "living on top of each other."

He says Proposition 2 would hasten the industry's shift to cage-free eggs, which more buyers want but which cost about 25% more at retail and account for less than 5% of the market.

Burger King last year started buying some cage-free eggs. Trader Joe's has gone cage free, and Google serves only cage-free eggs in corporate dining rooms. Instead of faltering, Pacelle says, California producers can lead the industry's transition.

Space challenges

Today's industry standards call for caged hens to get at least 67 square inches of space each, a little less than a regular-size sheet of paper. Hens are typically caged in groups of two to eight.

Farmers say the hens can stand and turn to reach food and water on different ends of the cage. What hens can't do is stretch their wings without touching the cage or another hen — which Proposition 2 requires.

The measure's opponents say that, if interpreted strictly, the proposition would require more than 5 square feet of space per hen so they can all stretch wings at the same time. That is so much space even cage-free operations — which require 1- to 1.5-square-feet per hen — wouldn't comply, they say.

"We don't have enough land," to do that, says Ryan Armstrong, of the family-owned Armstrong Egg Farms near San Diego. "We'll be out of business."

His 60-year-old company has 660,000 hens; 9% are cage free. He says the measure would require Armstrong to reduce its hen count by two-thirds or invest $20 million. That may not be feasible and would lead to higher egg prices.

Pacelle says the claim that the proposition requires all hens to be able to extend their wings at the same time is "ludicrous." On its website, Proposition 2 supporters say that claim displays the "level of the desperation that factory farms will go to."