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California and Cage-Free Chickens

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety on November 1, 2018

What came first: the chicken or the cage? Obviously, the chicken came first. But caging animals is a long-standing practice in the poultry industry to maximize available space for husbandry in the name of profit. Keeping chickens in a cage is also a handy way to protect them from predators such as foxes or hawks. Here’s the deal with California and California and Cage-Free Chickens.

Birds in Cages on the Ballot

Unfortunately, caging has several downsides for chickens. Keeping layers in tiny mesh boxes, once a common practice, deforms the animals and sets them up for a lifetime of health problems and pain. Larger cages designed to give birds room to move around have been hailed as a step forward, but the size itself is something of a sticking point – get too many birds in a cage that isn’t big enough, and it’s questionable whether they’re being treated much more humanely than they were before.

A ballot measure in California called Proposition 12 is hoping to put some of these concerns to rest. The proposition would ban the sale of eggs, pork, and veal from animals raised in confinement. The measure would apply to products from both inside and outside of California. It sets a floor for the minimum acceptable cage space for different animals, and it requires that all egg-laying hens in California be cage free by 2022.

Specifically, the measure stipulates that calves raised for veal need to have at least 43 square feet of floor space each by 2020. Pigs would require 24 square feet of space each by 2022. And hens would require a square foot of floor space each, with the additional requirement that they be kept cage-free by 2022.

But What is Cage-Free?

Cage free can be something of a contentious term. In this case, the text of the law spells it out: a hen must have “the amount of usable floor space per hen required by the 2017 edition of the United Egg Producers’ Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S . Egg-Laying Flocks: Guidelines for Cage-Free Housing.” They also spell out what a good cage-free housing system requires: it needs space for hens to roam around, as well as amenities like nest boxes, perches, and scratching areas. We think of birds roaming the open fields like grass-fed cattle? That is not what cage-free means. It is simply no cage, but still crammed in an indoor building.

The proposal is backed by an alliance of animal rights and labor organizations. The Humane Society has endorsed it, as have the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the California Democratic Party, and the United Farm Workers.

The measure is opposed by some business and agriculture groups, including the state Farm Bureau, the California associations of pork and egg producers, and the state Republican Party. They argue that the proposed requirements are too onerous, that the deadlines are optimistic, and that compliance will be expensive, difficult, and bad for their bottom line. The exact amount of space that’s necessary for an animal to live healthy and pain free is unclear, according to the opposition, and the measure will cost too much money.

There’s some evidence for that latter point: the LAO has estimated that the bill for enforcement of the new regulations could be $10 million dollars. Farmers argue that there will be further millions lost for them as a result. That financial pressure could be passed downstream to consumers, who may be surprised to see the cost of their morning eggs and bacon tick upwards. So goes the argument, anyways. The California voters will decide for themselves come November.

What Does This Mean for Food Safety?

Given that this is a food safety blog, however, we should turn to the eternal question: what do cage free hens mean for food safety? Are there any risks that are associated with keeping hens cage free? What about the other way around?

The Egg Safety Center is a website underwritten by the United Egg Producers, an industry association and advocacy group that dedicates themselves to the business of evangelizing on behalf of the benefits of eggs. There’s an answer to the question that we asked just above on the Egg Safety Center:  “Research by leading animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies shows that housing system type does not influence egg quality. All eggs, regardless of how a hen is housed, are safe and regulated by a number of agencies.”

We’ve investigated this question, too, and for our part it seems that the Egg Safety Center is largely right. It doesn’t seem that hens which are caged up are more likely to pass on pathogens, like Salmonella, that can find their way into your food and make you sick. What they don’t mention is that while opening up the space that chickens have access to and providing them with certain amenities doesn’t seem to affect the health of their eggs, it certainly affects the health of chickens.

Enclosed laying hens are called battery hens; they’re confined to an area of about sixty inches a piece, which is about the size of a sheet of paper. Their confinement causes a whole laundry list of problems: osteoporosis and bone breakage, respiratory problems from having to breathe in dust and chicken manure, distended and damaged reproductive systems from heavy laying, and a host of other injuries and ailments are all expected.

In the opinion of this writer, we can probably do better than that for our feathered friends. Certainly it seems that more humane conditions are worth some restructuring of how the business of chicken eggs is administered. Whether or not Proposition 12 is the right law to bring about more humane conditions for caged animals is harder to say, but as I’ve already written, it isn’t up to me (aside from the fact that I do vote in California and will be making a decision for myself). It’s up to the voter to make the decision. We will see what the ballot brings.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)