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The egg industry is rife with cruelty to animals. Millions of hens in California are kept in cages so small that every natural instinct is thwarted: They cannot perch, walk or spread their wings. On some farms, cages are stacked and hens on the bottom live in waste.
All creatures, even those bred to provide food, deserve to be treated humanely. That's the appeal of Proposition 2. It would require farmers to give chickens, pigs and veal calves room to turn around, walk or, in the case of chickens, stretch their wings. Over six years it phases out gestation crates for pigs -- contraptions that do not allow sows to stand -- and crates for veal calves. But California's pork industry is fairly small and the veal industry even smaller, so in practical terms, this ballot measure is really about the state's $337-million chicken business.
Similar measures regulating treatment of pigs and calves have passed in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Oregon, but California is the test case for the provisions on hens. The Humane Society of America, which is sponsoring Proposition 2, argues that if Californians pass it, other states will follow. As much as we support the decent treatment of animals, we doubt that passage of the measure would start a national trend. In fact, we fear that it would have an unintended consequence: Because it only regulates eggs produced in California and not eggs that are sold here, it would likely bolster the market for cheaper out-of-state eggs produced where farmers have no similar bans on cages.
According to a University of California Agricultural Issues Center report, cage-free eggs are about 20% more expensive to produce and cost about 25% more to buy. There is a growing demand, but it is still small -- about 5% of all eggs nationally are produced by cage-free hens. So California eggs would become more expensive, and many consumers would simply buy the cheaper eggs laid by hens living in cramped conditions in neighboring states or in Mexico. As a result, we fear the result of Proposition 2's passage would not be better treatment of hens but merely the export of their mistreatment. We recommend a no vote.
Although Proposition 2 isn't the answer, the egg industry is due for an overhaul, and chicken farmers should take heed. Polls indicate that this measure has wide support. If it passes, that will be in part because the egg industry either has been oblivious to consumer concerns or recalcitrant about coming up with its own solutions. Proposition 2 is proof that if farmers insist on mistreating animals, people will act.