Ask people what they think about Proposition 2, the California ballot initiative specifying “Standards for Confining Farm Animals,” and you will quickly find that few people know the details of the measure or what it might mean for Californians if it passes. As someone who cares deeply about what we eat and how it affects our health, I decided to investigate Prop 2 myself.
The initiative is only about 750 words. I encourage you to read the measure on your own, but I will summarize it here:
- It applies only to egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and veal calves in a farm setting.
- It prohibits confinement of these animals in a way that prevents them from “lying down,” “standing up,” “fully extending” limbs and “turning around freely.”
- Exceptions are made for research, veterinary care, transportation, rodeo, state fairs or 4-H programs, lawful slaughter and the seven days before a pig is expected to birth.
- Compliance will be enforced beginning January 1, 2015.
- Enforcement involves either a fine of less than $1000 or less than 180 days jail time.
There is no fine print or other dubious language in Prop 2. Nowhere does it demand a “cage-free” environment. Specific numbers on space requirements are not given. However, the vague language of the measure may be what is worrying some opponents.
In essence, this measure is about egg hens. Other states (Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon) have already passed measures to regulate the pig and veal industries, and there is little opposition to these elements of the California initiative. It is the $337 million egg industry that is at the center of this issue.
Supporters of Prop 2 offer several convincing arguments. As would be expected, cruelty to animals housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions is high on their list. They point to the industry’s practice of painfully removing the beaks of chickens to keep them from injuring each other, as well as the inability of hens to perform “natural” movements such as perching and dust bathing.
Supporters also point to the recent scandal at a Southern California egg ranch as evidence that the egg industry is not doing a good job of self-policing its practices.
Opponents argue that it is actually healthier for animals to remain in cages, because chickens sometimes choose to jump on top of each other when allowed to roam free (a phenomenon called “hysteria”). This, they say, makes the hens more likely to be smothered, injured and killed in cage-free settings compared to conventional cages. It is not obvious how much (if at all) this behavior may decrease the animals’ quality of life compared to existence in more confined quarters, though it may lower egg production to some extent.
Prop 2 does not specifically require a cage-free environment, but neither is it clear that bigger cages would meet the requirements of limb extension. As written, the measure may require current “battery cages” be replaced by larger “furnished” or “enriched” cages, but it could also demand the elimination of cages altogether. This confusion is why some call the initiative modest and others call it extreme.
There are certainly some supporters who argue that the egg industry is not required to entirely convert to cage-free practices, while other supporters (including the Yes! on Prop 2 Web site) simply argue that switching to cage-free will not be as burdensome as industry suggests. That cage requirements are not directly specified in the measure is one of its key weaknesses.
Proponents of Prop 2 also make a strong case for food safety issues, arguing that crowding, unsanitary and stressful conditions make hens and their eggs more susceptible to infection. Their argument acknowledges the tremendous progress in egg safety that was enacted in the 1970s, but purports that current crowding conditions have created new threats that make the measures inadequate, especially in regard to Salmonella.
Those against Prop 2 argue that the industry is already held to the highest standards. They also claim that free-range systems result in eggs that are even more likely to be contaminated than conventional eggs due to their potential contact with wild animals. Again, because Prop 2 does not specify if specific kinds of cages are permitted it is difficult to assess the validity of these arguments.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of Prop 2 is that it will likely strengthen small, family farms that do employ humane, safe practices. Currently, many small farms easily comply with the stipulations required by Prop 2. It has been difficult for some of these farms to compete with large industrial agriculture, which keep prices low with high production efficiency—the driving force behind animal overcrowding. Indeed, most of my personal favorite small farmers support Prop 2 (Bill Niman, Prather Ranch, Eatwell Farms, etc.).
Despite this, some opponents to Prop 2 including the San Francisco Chronicle suggest that the measure is in fact harmful to small farms. Specifically the Chronicle points to their conversation with Steve Mahrt of Petaluma Farms who argued that the “rigid language” of Prop 2 would be detrimental to his business. It is important to note, however, that Petaluma Farms is one of the largest industrial organic farms in California and does have financial motivations to keep other large industrial farms from competing with it in the cage-free egg market. Smaller farms do not threaten Petaluma Farms financially.
In my opinion, the best argument I have read against Prop 2 was outlined in a report issued in July by the University of California Agriculture Issues Center at Davis. The goal of the report was to assess the economic impact of Prop 2. They cite no financial conflict of interest in their analysis.
The authors of the report make a compelling case that Prop 2 will do little to change the way animals are housed in California. Instead, they suggest that the increased production cost for California egg farmers would result in the industry being unable to compete with other states that have more lenient animal standards. The consequence would be that the California egg market would be flooded with cheaper out-of-state eggs and most of the California egg industry would be eliminated. Currently California imports about one third of its eggs, suggesting that this issue of out-of-state competition is indeed a real threat to our egg industry.
This argument is persuasive because if the egg industry moves out of California it is more likely to reduce animal standards than increase them, thereby nullifying the objectives of Prop 2. It could also hurt local economies and potentially eliminate jobs for approximately 3,000 California employees. These are very serious risks for our state.
However, I am skeptical of many elements of the report. For instance, an assumption is made early on that neither conventional nor European-style “furnished” cages would be permitted under Prop 2. If this is the case it would effectively mandate cage-free systems for California egg growers. It is not clear to me if supporters of Prop 2 agree with this interpretation. Presumably an extended cage system (as opposed to cage-free) would have a substantially smaller impact on the production costs for egg farmers and the California economy as a whole.
Supporters of Prop 2 argue that the egg industry is not likely to leave California. Instead they claim this report is a scare tactic used by Prop 2 opponents. In 2006, an animal welfare measure for pigs and veal was passed in Arizona with similar economic arguments against it. The Arizona initiative ultimately passed with overwhelming support and, according to supporters, turned out to be a “catalyst for national reform.” Major pig and veal producers remained in Arizona and other large producers in the United States and Canada began phasing out inhumane practices within three months of the measure’s passing.
Whether or not a similar trend would begin in the egg industry is not clear. Something to consider is that major retailers such as Safeway and Burger King are already demanding higher animal standards because of consumer demand for improved safety, taste and nutritional value.
I also doubt the assertions in the report that health risks to animals and humans are increased under cage-free conditions. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and stress are almost always more likely to foster disease than more humane conditions, so I question the credibility of this research. Additionally, the costs cited in the report are disputed by Prop 2 supporters who argue prices would go up only one cent per egg.
Honestly I do not trust the opponents of Prop 2. Much of the funding against the measure comes from industry giants who have themselves been found guilty of malpractice, animal cruelty and threats to public safety.
On the other hand, it is questionable if a California ballot initiative is the best place to combat issues with industrialized agriculture.
Regardless of your personal, philosophical or political reasons to support or oppose Prop 2, I encourage you all to remember that every day you make decisions that impact the food industry when you decide what to eat. We all vote with our forks whether we think about it or not. Prop 2 reminds us how important it is for us to ask ourselves if our choices are helping or hindering the growth of the world we want to live in.
This article is also available at Synapse.
For the record, I will be voting yes on Prop 2. I do not find the arguments against it convincing enough to let this opportunity pass. Industrial agriculture practices threaten our health in many ways including risk of disease outbreak, environmental pollution and decreased nutritional value. Restricting these irresponsible practices will ultimately make all our lives better and is worth the investment.
What do you think about Prop 2?