State leads way on humane food with Prop. 2

On Jan. 1, Proposition 2 will take effect in California, requiring that all veal calves, breeding pigs and laying hens in the state have enough space to “lie down, stand up, turn around, and freely extend their limbs” — hardly a radical animal-rights manifesto. Six years ago, California voters overwhelmingly endorsed Prop. 2, with nearly two-thirds backing the initiative championed by my group, the Humane Society of the United States, and others.

Since the votes were tallied, the sentiments behind Prop. 2 have reverberated around the nation. More than 60 major food companies — from McDonald's to Costco to Kroger — have agreed to stop buying pork from producers who confine their sows in gestation crates, which prevent the animals from even turning around for years on end. And many of the largest pig producers, including Smithfield and Cargill, have agreed to phase out their confinement of sows in gestation crates.

The American veal industry has seen almost a complete turnaround too — with most of its calves now out of crates and able, well, to turn around. It still hasn't completely turned around the industry's fortunes, since the tiny crates for veal calves became synonymous with animal cruelty in the 1980s and '90s and that's been hard to shake off.

You would think the egg industry would see the writing on the wall and follow the path of planned reforms like many in the veal and pork industries have.

Some players in the egg industry have changed. Au Bon Pain, Burger King, Compass Group, Harris Teeter, Marriott International, Nestle, Unilever and other leading brands have already pledged to switch to cage-free eggs nationally. And some major egg producers are increasingly recognizing that the future of egg production is cage-free production.

And in California, a top five egg-producing state with about 20 million hens, legislators have led the way. Just two years after voters approved Prop. 2, California lawmakers followed up with a law extending Prop. 2's standards to all shell eggs sold in the state.

But some producers — stirred up by agribusiness lobbying groups whose leaders literally don't want to give an inch for the animals — have refused to accept that consumers have spoken and that the future is cage-free. Along with their political allies, they've now sued four times to try to undermine California's hen protection standards. To this point, they've come up short each time.

In October, a federal judge in Sacramento delivered the most important ruling, holding that five state attorneys general and one governor lacked standing to challenge California's standards in court. Judge Kimberly Mueller found that the plaintiffs were only purporting to represent their states — Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma — when “[i]t is patently clear plaintiffs are bringing this action on behalf of a subset of each state's egg farmers … not on behalf of each state's population generally.”

Now it's time for the holdout producers and retailers to recognize that cage confinement is not humane or sustainable, nor popularly supported, and to convert to cage-free production systems.

Some holdout egg producers have quibbled about what exactly California's laws require. But there has never been any question that cage-free systems are compliant with both laws, since they provide hens with enough space to perform basic natural behaviors, like standing up and flapping their wings.

Battery cages are one of the last remaining devices of extreme confinement on factory farms, and one of the cruelest. Confined in a space the size of a shoebox, a battery-caged hen cannot flap her wings or exhibit other natural behaviors.

Numerous studies show that battery cages are unsafe, too, with higher levels of salmonella contamination in caged hen factories than in cage-free facilities.

With the implementation of California's standards beginning in January, it's time for a larger array of food retailers to make cage-free commitments. With many major egg producers switching to cage-free, the supply is increasingly there. By telling the producers that they only want cage-free eggs, they'll accelerate positive movement in the industry.

They'll also clearly be complying with Californian voters' wishes. And most importantly, they'll be doing something good for animals and for food safety.

One day, we'll look back at this 50-year experiment of intensive confinement of animals on factory farms and wonder how good people could have allowed this kind of systemic mistreatment of animals to persist so long. We'll also note what a catalytic role California voters played in ushering in a new era of improved treatment of animals raised for food — as long as we do the right thing and make it stick in the months ahead.

It's the least we can do for animals from whom we take so much.

Wayne Pacelle is the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

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