This November, voters in California will decide the fate of Proposition 2, otherwise known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative. The aim of this ballot measure is to prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Three types of confinement are targeted: veal crates, sow-gestation crates and chicken battery cages.
The last category is the one getting the most attention in a debate that has, not surprisingly, become heated.
A group calling itself Safe California Food says that “Proposition 2 is a risky, dangerous and costly measure banning almost all modern egg production in California”; they call it the Unsafe Food Initiative. Among their concerns is that the proposition’s passage will undermine animal welfare and food safety in California; increase Salmonella risk; jeopardize public health; eliminate fresh, safe and local eggs; and drive up consumer prices.
On the other side of the debate, according to Humane California, the proposition will prevent cruelty to animals, improve health and food safety, support family farmers, protect air and water, and safeguard the environment.
In between, the debate goes on. Some animal-welfare groups support it; some are against it because they think the measure doesn’t go far enough. Many industry groups — including the Poultry Science Association — are opposed. The American Veterinary Medical Association doesn’t like it; the California Veterinary Medical Association does, except for the members who didn’t and broke off to form a splinter group called the Association of California Veterinarians to oppose it.
The University of California Agricultural Issues Center attempted to tease out the possible economic effects of the measure. The researchers concluded that non-cage systems, such as the ones Proposition 2 requires, incur costs 20 percent higher per dozen eggs than traditional cage systems. And even though retail prices for the cage-free eggs are about 25 percent higher than those of regular eggs, researchers predicted that California consumers would probably not see a price increase when their eggs are rung up. Instead, California would bring in more of the less expensive eggs produced in cage systems in other states and Mexico.
The study concluded that Proposition 2’s passage would shrink California’s egg industry (the fifth largest in the country).
It’s hard to make a study of the real-life effects of such legislation because efforts to pass this kind of measure in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire and Vermont have failed. Currently, similar legislation is under consideration in Colorado and Washington.
If approved, California’s Proposition 2 would become law on Jan. 1, 2015. Depending on whom you ask, its passage would be an important step toward more humane treatment of farm animals or it could be the beginning of the end of egg production in California. Or, possibly, both.