Never ask how the sausage is made.
So it is with industrialized meat and egg production in twenty-first century America. In the name of maximizing production and efficiency, farmers treat animals not as live creatures but as manufacturing units. They tinker with breeding, diet, housing density, medications, mutilation, and “retirement age” in pursuit of the highest per-unit production of bacon, veal, and eggs. It’s no different from factories in any other competitive industry, except that here the “machinery” is alive. Fitting as many cans as possible into a case is efficient business practice, but forcing as many hens as possible to live in a small wire cage is cruel and immoral.
Robert Digitale of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, whose territory includes egg capital Petaluma, describes a typical egg operation:
“Those voters who get their idea of egg production mostly from Foghorn Leghorn cartoons would be astonished to see the real thing. In an era of high-tech efficiency and fears of avian influenza, only a sliver of the nation’s egg production occurs in the barnyard or the chicken coop. Nearly all egg-laying hens, both caged and cage-free, spend their lives inside large barns and warehouses. Bred for egg production, not meat, the hens typically live less than two years and are then disposed of. About 95 percent of the state’s egg-laying hens live in cages. A typical cage … measures 27 inches wide, 24 inches deep and 16 inches high. It normally holds eight chickens.”
The marvelous Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, clues us into why these conditions are so atrocious:
“Broiler chickens … at least don’t spend their eight-week lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing. That fate is reserved for the American laying hen, who passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices’ that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on more neutral descriptors, like ‘vices’ and ‘stress.’ Whatever you want to call what’s going on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.”
Prop 2 is your way to stop this abuse. It will require California farmers to provide enough space for egg-laying fowl, pregnant pigs, and veal calves so that they can turn around and extend their limbs without hitting another animal.
Prop 2 is remarkably narrow in scope. It applies only to sows while pregnant (not after giving birth), calves for veal (not beef or dairy), and hens kept for eggs (not meat). There are numerous exceptions, such as for scientific research, transportation, county fairs, 4-H programs, and even rodeos. Far from being an animal-rights activist’s dream, Prop 2 is just a modest step, aimed at only the worst abuses in the meat and egg industry. And it doesn’t go into effect until 2015, giving producers six years to comply.
You might think that Prop 2 will drive up the price of eggs. After all, to comply with Prop 2, most California egg producers will have to build more henhouses or reduce the size of their flocks. Either way, the production cost per egg in this state will rise, so naturally prices should follow.
But guess what: California today imports half its eggs from out of state. And here’s where it gets sticky. A UC Davis study suggests that the out-of-state producers currently meeting 50% of our demand can ramp up their production and shipping capacity over the next six years so they can meet 100% when Prop 2 goes into effect. The study predicts that California producers, hamstrung by the restrictions in Prop 2, won’t be able to compete on price, and will simply go out of business. So, if Prop 2 passes, the eggs at your supermarket may have been laid in a different time zone, but you won’t notice any difference in price. Yay!
But wait. Won’t those out-of-state farms be successful precisely because they use the same cruel, inhumane methods we’re trying to ban with Prop 2? If the UC Davis study’s prediction is accurate, won’t we simply have shifted the animal abuse from California to other locations, with no real improvement in conditions for millions of hens?
Sadly, the answer will be “yes” as long as consumers continue to shop for price only, and blind themselves to whether their savings were made possible by slave labor, or a depleted fishery, or a bloody war, or animal cruelty.
But there are encouraging signs everywhere you look. Today, millions of Californians refuse to buy immorally produced food. We eschew dolphin-unsafe tuna, crate-raised veal, and farm-raised salmon. We gladly pay slightly higher prices for organic produce, locally-grown vegetables, and recyclable drink containers. Want evidence? Look no farther than the crowds at your local Whole Foods Market.
If Prop 2 passes, all California eggs will be humanely produced. I predict that a significant and growing segment of grocery customers will know to look for the California label, starting with the five million people who voted to pass the measure. The effect of Prop 2 will not be to kill the California egg industry, but rather to convert it to producing a more valuable commodity: eggs that we can feel good about buying. I’m not saying it will be easy or painless for the industry, but many manufacturers will survive and thrive along with their hens.
Finally, there’s the possibility that Prop 2 will spark a movement to limit cruelty to food-producing animals nationwide. It wouldn’t be the first time California led the way. If we can convince others that animal cruelty is worth fighting, we will really have achieved something impressive.
Pete Rates the Propositions is non-partisan and unaffiliated with any candidate or organization. Pete remains obstinately undoctrinaire, considering each ballot proposition on its merits. He is proud to have offended (and persuaded) voters of all political stripes. This originally appeared on Pete Rates the Propositions and is republished with the permission of the author.