Read the original article by Evan Wyloge at desertsun.com here.
California voters want chickens to roam freely.
Proposition 12, which would eliminate the use of cages in egg production completely by 2022, has garnered 59 percent of the vote as of 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, with 45 percent of precincts reporting.
The apparent win for the measure comes a decade after Californians rejected controversial “battery cages,” enclosures so tiny that birds aren’t able to spread their wings or turn around inside them.
Viral videos of hens packed into bleak factory farms made the issue something of a cause célèbre in 2008 across the state, where Proposition 2 passed with a lopsided 63 percent of the vote.
Proposition 12 seeks to update the 9-year-old regulations to make cage-free farms a reality — for real this time.
The measure also adds provisions that would affect veal and pork, eventually outlawing the use of similarly restrictive gestation crates on sows.
“California has the opportunity to lead the world in farm animal welfare,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society. “Eliminating extreme cage confinement protects food safety and small farmers.”
The Humane Society-sponsored Prevent Cruelty California gathered about 450,000 signatures, 100,000 more than needed to land the proposition onto Election Day ballots.
Officials on both sides of the issue suggest the reality may be more complicated than simple ballot language can describe, however.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Charlie Arnot, who oversees the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply. “We have to juggle animal conditions, food costs and environmental impacts.”
The coalition includes UC Davis researchers, farmers and nutritional experts. It is the only organization that has conducted a large-scale study weighing the impacts of different hen housing conditions in the U.S.
According to Arnot, cage-free eggs come with significant trade-offs: “Hens have greater opportunity to exhibit natural behaviors (in cage-free systems) but with a higher mortality rate.”
Arnot says hens raised in cage-free aviaries also produce fewer eggs, which could lead to increased prices at the supermarket. Since eggs are traditionally a cheap and reliable source of protein, he fears that the legislation could disproportionately hurt lower-income folks.
A study from Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics suggests those fears may be justified.
When Proposition 2 took effect in 2015, California saw a significant decrease in egg production and a “significant increase in the prices consumers paid for eggs, ranging from 48 cents to $1.08 per dozen,” the 2016 study found.
Balk and other proponents of the bill argue that since many of the country’s biggest retailers — McDonalds, Kraft, Walmart and Costco have all pledged to convert to cage-free egg supplies within the next ten years — the legislation would put minimal strain on the economy.
“The industry is already moving in a cage-free direction, independent of the law,” Balk said. “Consumers want to see their food sourced humanely and responsibly; retailers are merely responding to this market demand.”
United against the updated proposition was an unlikely coalition of animal rights activists and ag industry groups, including PETA and the National Pork Producers Council.
PETA argued that Prop. 12 won’t go far enough to promote hen welfare and that it will solidify consumer misinformation about what exactly “cage-free” means.
The Pork Producers Council, on the other hand, argued that the new regulations will put undue financial burden on pig farmers, not only in California but across the country — as the Golden State is a leading market for pork in the U.S.
“Farmers — not animal rights activists — should be allowed to determine which production practices are best for their livestock,” said Jim Monroe, a Pork Producers Council spokesman.
Twelve states have litigated Proposition 2, arguing that California’s regulations shouldn’t apply to producers in other states.
Those objections haven’t flown with judges — so far.
But if provisions from the House-backed Farm Bill become law, Prop. 12 could be rendered moot.
The so-called “King Amendment,” introduced by Steve King, R-IA, whose district produces more eggs than any other in the nation, stipulates that states can’t impose animal welfare standards onto products imported from other states.
King says the law would mitigate “the serious economic harm the California law is currently causing to egg producers and consumers in Iowa and elsewhere.”
More than 30 senators penned a letter opposing the amendment and defeated similar legislation in 2014, when the previous version of the Farm Bill was passed into law.
“If enacted, this amendment would undermine numerous state laws and infringe on the fundamental rights of states to establish regulations within their own borders,” the senators wrote.