Voters to Decide Whether Animals Need More Space

Jill Benson, vice president of JS West, surveys one of the company's egg-processing plants at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif.
Jill Benson, vice president of JS West, surveys one of the company's egg-processing plants at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif. (By Marcio Jose Sanchez -- Associated Press)
By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- In a clash between a major state industry and the growing humane farming movement, California voters will decide next month whether the state's farms must afford more living space to veal calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant sows.

Under ballot measure Proposition 2, farmers would be prohibited from confining these animals in a way that does not let them turn around freely, lie down, stand up or fully extend their limbs. Cages and crates now commonly used to house them would be banned.

Proponents say the regulations would improve food safety, protect the environment and end what they call the cruel and inhumane treatment animals suffer when confined in areas barely larger than their bodies. But opponents say the measure would cost California -- the nation's fifth-largest egg producer -- thousands of jobs, sharply increase production costs and ultimately destroy competition with out-of-state producers.

Both sides agree: If approved, California's measure would set a national precedent. Veal and sow gestation crates have been banned in other states, but California would be the first state to prohibit the small cages used in egg production.

"We believe that this is the inevitable drift of society as people recognize that all animals, including animals raised for food, deserve humane treatment," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, which authored the bill. "This is the way the market is moving."

Kelli Ludlum, spokeswoman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a national organization that represents 6 million farmers and ranchers nationwide, said the measure sets a negative precedent for farmers everywhere. "Just because an animal is confined doesn't mean that its welfare is compromised or that it's not comfortable," she said. In most cases, the confinement is for the animal's own safety, she said.

"There are few things more aggressive than a pregnant sow," Ludlum said.

Money has flooded both sides of the campaign, making it one of most expensive animal rights contests ever. The Californians for Safe Food campaign, which opposes Proposition 2, has raised about $7.7 million, said Mitch Head, senior campaign adviser. Pacelle said his campaign has raised about $8.5 million.

The proposition's backers include the United Farm Workers and the California Democratic Party, while opponents include the United Egg Producers Association and the American College of Poultry Veterinarians. The issue has divided small-animal and large-animal agricultural vets, with some separating from the 6,000-member California Veterinary Medical Association over its support of the measure.

A handful of states have passed similar measures. Florida and Oregon have banned gestation crates for breeding pigs. Arizona and Colorado have banned crates for those animals and veal calves. Companies also have joined the growing farm movement: Ben & Jerry's, Whole Foods and Wolfgang Puck are among those using or phasing in the use of cage-free eggs.

California's measure would be the first to ban the "battery cages" that house most of its 19 million egg-laying hens. The state's $337 million egg industry produces almost 5 billion eggs annually, less than 5 percent of them from cage-free hens.

If the measure is approved, starting in 2015 farmers could be fined as much as $1,000 or sent to prison for as much as six months for violating the law. Exceptions would apply to transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary programs.

Laying hens typically spend a year in wire mesh cages, which vary in size but often house five to seven birds, offering each bird about 75 square inches, according to Carolyn Stull, an animal welfare specialist at the University of California at Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension.

The state's pregnant sows are individually housed in gestation crates about 2 1/2 -by-7 feet for about 80 days before giving birth in a farrowing barn, Stull said. Veal calves also are individually housed in crates about 24-by-48 inches for about four to five months before slaughter.

Farmers are guided by industry standards, state laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, and state health and environmental codes.

Critics say the regulations would harm farmers and point to a recent study by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, which found that they would severely reduce the state's egg industry and increase out-of-state imports.

The study found that requiring California farmers to use non-cage systems would increase their production costs at least 20 percent, compared with costs to out-of-state competitors. To retrofit or buy new housing systems would cost them about $500 million.

As a result, California producers could not compete with eggs shipped into the state, the study found. "The most likely outcome, therefore, is the elimination of almost all of the California egg industry over a few years," says the report, which did not make a recommendation about the initiative.

Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, whose agricultural district boasts a mile-long egg conveyer belt on one farm, is convinced the regulations would send farmers packing.

"I'm sure the egg producers would leave," Kelsey said. "They would go to Nevada and set up shop there."

Proponents point to an April report sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The 2 1/2 -year independent analysis "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Production in America" found that factory farming takes a hidden toll on human health and the environment, is undermining rural America's economic stability and fails to provide the humane treatment of livestock increasingly demanded by American consumers.

In particular, the report found that keeping thousands of animals in close quarters spreads disease quickly, spurring factory farms to treat animals with antibiotics that in some cases render medications less effective in people.

Among other things, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production called for a 10-year phaseout of cages and gestation crates. A similar plan was passed by the European Union, which ordered its farmers to phase out the cages by 2012.

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