Californians are battling on multiple fronts over the minimum amount of space a caged egg-laying hen should have. The current answer is bleak, as Care2 has described: 67 square inches, according to the Merced Sun-Star. The Humane Society states that “up to 50 million” chickens get “just 48 square inches.”
California voters felt that wasn’t enough. They passed a 2008 state ballot to give hens extra space.
The factory farms that cage hens did not take the result of that vote gracefully. Instead an egg farmer, William Cramer, sued, arguing that the ballot measure was unconstitutional, according to the Merced Sun-Star.
A federal judge in Los Angeles handed the farmers another loss on September 12, ruling that the new law was constitutional. It gives egg-laying hens the right to “enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their wings,” the Merced Sun-Star reports. The ballot measure, though passed in 2008, doesn’t become effective until 2015.
But the farmers did not put all of their eggs into the lawsuit basket. At the same time, some of them, including an industry group called the United Egg Producers, were negotiating a compromise with the Humane Society of the United States. The two sides agreed to “roughly double the minimum floor space per hen” and provide “separate areas in each cage for nesting, perching and bathing in dust.” This would allow chickens to engage in some of the natural, instinctive behaviors that are impossible in the barren wire cages that offer them nothing to do and no room to do it.
The compromise would also “prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses,” according to the Humane Society. This is not a trivial change. Ammonia fumes from excrement can cause “painful and stressful” infections and pathologies, and even death, according to Poultry Perspectives.
Farmers outside California would have up to 18 years to comply with the proposed changes — that is many, many generations of laying hens. Inside California the deadline would be nine years, which also denies the benefits of the compromise to a heartbreaking number of chickens.
Some legislators agreed to introduce the compromise as federal legislation (H.B. 3798) and try to pass it into law as an amendment to the Farm bill, so far without luck. Last June the Humane Society announced that the Senate refused to consider the compromise.
According to HSUS, the refusal to vote on the battery cage compromise was a win for “the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council.” They did not want “any improvements on animal welfare” in the Farm bill, apparently because they feared their practices would be next to come under scrutiny. Indeed, the Humane Society has recently focused on gestation crates for pregnant pigs, successfully persuading producers to phase them out.
Some animal advocates weren’t thrilled with the compromise either. United Poultry Concerns stated that the proposed federal law would not go into effect until 2030, and that the new minimum space requirements were still too small: less than a square foot per white hen, and one square foot for larger brown hens. “A hen requires a minimum of 1.5 square feet…merely to engage in minimal ‘normal behavior,’” UPC argues. It also notes that the proposal included “no criminal penalties for noncompliance,” making the law “toothless.”
California’s Proposition 2, while less specific than the Humane Society’s proposed compromise, would provide criminal penalties, albeit only at the misdemeanor level: “a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or imprisonment in jail for up to 180 days,” according to Smart Voter. The proposition does not specify specific square footage or enrichment for cages.
The dispute over just how little room egg farmers can get away with giving their chickens has a lot more time to play out given the long phase-in periods in both Proposition 2 and the proposed HSUS compromise, which presumably will be reintroduced in Congress. Meanwhile chickens remain crowded into what all animal advocates agree is not nearly enough space.
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