by George Looby, DVM
To East Coast readers, some of the issues that surface on the other coast are occasionally viewed with a mixture of amusement and concern and so it is with the housing requirements that California voters mandated for the laying hens living in their state and beyond.
Animal rights issues are fraught with emotion and it is often difficult to remain neutral when considering the whys and wherefores of how animals are managed in various operations.
Laying hens in commercial operations do not enjoy long careers as producers and as such must produce at a high level in a relatively short time. Some readers will recall the legend on one feed mill’s laying mash bag that read “Lay or Bust”. Such is the fate of the laying hen under commercial conditions. Others will recall trucks loaded with hens headed to Camden, NJ to become one of the main ingredients in Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup after a two-year career on the production line. Compassion and tender heartedness plays little or no role in a commercial hen’s life. Let it be said that during that period of time when she is productive her environment is carefully monitored by several groups not the least of which are the operators of her farm.
In 2008 the citizens of California passed a ballot proposition, the so-called Proposition 2 that set minimum space requirements for egg laying hens, veal calves and pregnant sows. In 2010 the state legislature passed a law that all eggs sold in California come from hens that met the requirements set forth in the voters proposition of 2008. In essence this required that hens be able to spread their wings and extend their limbs. This rather broad requirement was modified to be made more specific to read that each hen living in an enclosure containing nine or more hens be required to have at least 116 square inches of space for each hen. Enclosures with fewer birds are required to have progressively more space with 322 square inches required for a hen living alone.
As one might expect the new law did not sit well with the commercial egg producers in California who are faced with major alternations to their existing facilities in order to comply with the new law that took effect on Jan. 1 of this year. In February a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a challenge to Proposition 2 by Mr. William Cramer who owns egg farms in California.
Mr. Cramer contended that the proposition should be overturned because it was too vague in that it did not specify minimum cage sizes for laying hens. The panel ruled that the requirements as written were clear enough for the ordinary person to understand and apply. Because hens have a wingspan and a turning radius that can be observed and measured, a person of reasonable intelligence can determine the dimensions of a cage that will be in compliance with the newly enacted legislation. The judges went on to say that while it might have been preferable for the bill enacted to state that the enclosure for hens must specify a minimum amount of space per bird, the Due Process Clause does not demand “perfect clarity” or “precise guidance”.
The impact the new California regulations would have on other major egg producing states did not escape the notice of regulatory people in those affected states. The law, as written, states that all eggs imported into the State of California must come from hens whose cages are equal in size to those egg laying hens in California. Compliance with those regulations would have a major economic impact on egg producers in those states, by some estimates as much as 120 million dollars. Despite the fact that California ranks number 5 in annual egg production in the U.S. it is major consumer of out of state eggs and therein comes the rub. The state attorneys general of Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad are challenging the new law in a separate federal appellate case. An earlier district court case had been dismissed by Judge Kimberly Mueller of the eastern District of California who ruled the state governments had failed to show they had standing to sue on behalf of all the citizens of their states. The judge ruled that the public would not be harmed by the changes and the only harm would be to those egg producers who chose not to comply with the California law.
As might be expected the new law had an impact on egg prices in California once the new law took effect on Jan. 1. At that time the prices in the state were about double what they were in the northeast but within a relatively short period of time they were selling at about 20 percent higher than they were a year earlier. Those who monitor the market have not seen a noticeable drop in per capita consumption in the state. In common with many other industries consolidation and mergers have been the trend in the egg industry with the number of large commercial egg producers now less than 200 from a peak of 10,000 not that many years ago. It is estimated the number of companies with at least 75,000 hens has declined from about 350 in 1994 to about 170 today.
This entire episode reinforces the notion that everyone involved in animal agriculture at any level is being watched closely by any number of individuals and organizations with a variety of different objectives and agendas.