Vote for bigger hen cages could cause big changes

SAN FRANCISCO -- Californians' adoption Tuesday of a ban on restrictive cages for egg-laying hens will hasten changes nationwide, supporters say. Opponents say it will put California producers out of business, given consumer demand for cheap eggs.

Proposition 2 drew support from nearly two-thirds of voters. It prevents farmers in California from confining veal calves, pregnant pigs and egg-laying hens in ways that prevent them from standing, lying and stretching limbs. The measure effectively bans cages used by 95% of the egg industry.

Pushed by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights groups, the measure affects about 20 million animals and drew about $20 million in spending from both sides. That makes it the biggest campaign win for farm animals in U.S. history, supporters say. "This was a landslide victory in favor of animals," says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society.

California doesn't have much of a veal or pork industry, so the battle centered on hens. Pacelle says the win will inspire similar measures nationwide and greater demand from retailers and restaurants for cage-free eggs, now less than 5% of the market.

The measure, which takes effect in 2015, will require egg farms to give hens more room than the standard 67-square-inches each. Producers say the resulting expenses will drive egg prices up and make their eggs uncompetitive with those from other states and Mexico.

Fallout from California's measure will discourage similar laws in other states, says Mitch Head, of the national United Egg Producers. California produces 6% of the nation's eggs. Iowa and Ohio are far bigger producers.

Burger King, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are among the retailers that have switched to cage-free eggs or have begun phasing them in. Several states have banned restrictive crates for pregnant pigs or veal calves.