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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

California Dreamin’

Animal advocates know that last November’s overwhelming passage of Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, was a watershed moment for the cause and a marker for our progress. It not only creates a new law in California banning the cruel confinement of veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens in tiny crates and cages on industrial factory farms, but also is galvanizing efforts in other states to achieve similar results.

More than 8.2 million Californians affirmatively voted “Yes” on Prop 2—making it the most popular citizen’s initiative in history. With equal spending by both sides, Prop 2 passed with a landslide 63.5 percent—receiving majorities in 47 of 58 counties, from Alameda to Yuba. If there was any lingering doubt that the humane treatment of animals is a mainstream value that resonates deeply and broadly—in urban and rural areas, among liberals and conservatives—that matter was settled on November 4th.

The message is plain: All animals deserve humane treatment, including those raised for food. And now policymakers, retailers, industry groups, and consumers are listening. Major grocery and restaurant chains are phasing out products from caged animals. Anti-confinement bills will be introduced in several state legislatures as well as the U.S. Congress. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will ban the slaughter of sick and injured cattle.

Dairy Cows_jpgIn California, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter), a strong animal protection leader from the Central Valley, has restructured the traditional Senate Agriculture Committee into the new Senate Food & Agriculture Committee, which promises to take a more balanced approach and place a greater emphasis on food safety, animal welfare, and sustainability. One of his first acts was to introduce a bill to ban the severing of tails from dairy cows without anesthesia, an inhumane amputation still used by California dairy producers. With almost every major veterinary medical organization opposing this practice, we hope to have the support of the dairy industry in ending this needless mutilation of animals.

Another bill just introduced in California holds the prospect of allowing HSUS and industry groups to find common ground and join together. Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) has authored A.B. 1437, which requires that all eggs sold in California meet the standards prescribed by Prop 2. That is, by 2015, only cage-free eggs could be sold in the state, and it would be unlawful to sell eggs from birds confined in so-called “battery cages” where they don’t even have enough room to spread their wings.

Huffman has so far been joined by Senate Food & Agriculture Committee Chair Florez, Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) who is also a committee member, Assembly Agriculture Committee Chair Cathleen Galgiani (D-Livingston) and Vice Chair Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), and Assembly Members Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), and Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim). These legislators represent rural and urban districts, and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly committees with jurisdiction over agriculture are among those advocating for the reform. Galgiani and Berryhill opposed Prop 2; Florez, Hancock, Lieu, Nava, and Solorio supported it; and Huffman took no public position on the ballot measure. There can’t be any stronger signal that all sides have now come together, after what was a polarized ballot initiative fight, to move the ball forward for farm animal welfare and consumer protection.

They know the cruelty and food safety risks associated with the confinement of egg-laying hens have been deemed unacceptable by California voters. Prop 2 gave California egg producers a full six years to transition their operations to more humane and sustainable systems. But the faster that consumers, retailers, and others adapt to the message sent by Prop 2’s passage, the faster we will see market prices for cage-free eggs align more closely with the actual costs of producing cage-free eggs—less than a penny per egg more, according to a California poultry economist.

Producers and retailers are currently able to charge more because supply of these eggs is tight—as factory farms drag their feet and resist making the switch to cage-free. Because consumers who have committed themselves to shunning caged cruelty have shown themselves willing to pay more to do so, they have essentially been charged an “ethical premium” for a niche product. 

HensCage-free supply will expand as California producers, and those in other states, shift toward more humane production methods, causing retail prices to decline. In fact, the undoing of the battery cage will have pro-competitive effects for all parties to the egg industry. The cages have cost the hens and consumers dearly. Voluntary industry guidelines relating to their use have been used to restrict supply in an industry-wide price-fixing scheme—gouging consumers and jacking up egg prices nearly 50 percent over the past two years. The record profits earned through this conspiracy are now the subject of a number of criminal investigations and class action lawsuits against the egg industry.

Just as California adopted strict fuel standards and forced the automobile industry to move in the direction of greater fuel efficiency and curbing emissions, the state can now lead the way in taking a stand for more humane treatment of animals raised for food. It’s time to make sure that every bird has enough room to spread her wings, and is freed from the stressful, overcrowded, unhygienic conditions in battery cage operations—conditions that increase the likelihood of consumers being exposed to higher levels of food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella, the leading cause of food-borne illness-related death in the United States.

The sooner the industry abandons extreme confinement, the better off consumers, producers, retailers, and animals will be. And in order to get there, we need a combination of compassionate consumer action at the grocery store, socially responsible corporate policies in the board room, and sensible public policies in the legislatures.


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