California’s egg laws hatch uncertainty

Who’s guarding the henhouse?

Asked in 2008 whether hens and other farm animals deserve more space, California voters replied with a resounding “yes.” Two-thirds of them endorsed a standard allowing hens enough room to stand up, lie down and extend their wings fully without touching their enclosure or another bird. Voters were convinced both by calls for humane treatment and evidence suggesting birds with more space tend to be healthier.

Now, days away from the law taking effect, questions about what the law requires, how farmers will comply and who will oversee it continue to cloud the outlook for California’s hens.

While Proposition 2 only applied to eggs produced in California, the Legislature subsequently passed a law covering all eggs sold in the state. The combined measures dictate that, come Jan. 1, every egg laid or offered at a grocery store in California must meet the new standards.

Egg industry groups and economists have warned about an increase in egg prices to offset the cost of installing new enclosures – the Association of California Egg Farmers has pegged the statewide price tag at around $400 million – or of housing fewer hens. Estimates of the amount vary, but a spike appears likely.

“You would expect people would have to charge higher prices because it’s going to be a more costly production system,” said David Harvey, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service.

Representatives of national and statewide organizations representing the egg industry say they believe California farmers will be prepared when the calendar flips to 2015.

“California egg farmers are working diligently to meet the laws’ requirements and consumers’ expectations,” said John Segale, a spokesman for the Association of California Egg Farmers. “Our farmers are making the changes so they’re complying with the law. They’ll be ready to comply.”

But Proposition 2’s sponsors at the Humane Society of the United States contend that farmers are likely to fall short of what voters expected, confining chickens in ways that still do not offer enough space. They say freeing hens from cages is the only sure way to follow the law and point to public polling showing broad support for cage-free farms.

“They’re not just completely defying the rule of law,” Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle said of California farmers, but “the vast majority of these guys are just jerry-rigging their cages.”

Farms contacted by The Sacramento Bee declined requests for a reporter to visit. But the dueling predictions, with the industry promising compliance and advocates warning that farmers will fall short, speak to persistent uncertainty about how much hens’ living conditions will improve.

Proposition 2 does not require farms to dispense with cages altogether. The measure’s language did not include the phrase “cage-free,” though consumers can already buy eggs from cage-free birds – typically for a higher price – and advocates encourage the practice.

All the new guidelines do is establish a range of behaviors hens must be able to perform. There is not a state agency empowered to offer more details, such as specific dimensions of enclosures.

Some farmers are continuing to hold back, according to UC Davis agricultural economist Daniel Sumner, because they are unsure of how much space the law requires and fear being undercut by competitors who spend less on upgrades and thus have lower costs.

The lack of specifics has prompted lawsuits challenging Proposition 2 on the grounds the law was too vague. The head of a national egg group argued that the initiative’s ultimate intent was murky and pointed out that, despite voting overwhelmingly to give hens more space, most Californians continue to buy eggs laid by birds in conventional housing.

“Six, seven years later people are still buying eggs from those systems. People like to go to the grocery store and buy affordable food,” said Chad Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers. “We’re convinced that the voters in California really didn’t know what they were voting for.”

Just as Proposition 2 does not allow a state agency to regulate the law, it does not give any statewide entity enforcement powers.

Independently of Proposition 2, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has used its food safety rule-making authority to require that hens get at least 116 square inches of space each – a significant expansion from the 67 square inches the egg industry endorses. The department will enforce the rule with audits and site checks, both in California and elsewhere.

“Veterinarians tell us that more space makes for a less stressed hen, and a less stressed hen is less likely to potentially give us salmonella,” said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the department.

Those expanded space requirements are “consistent with Proposition 2,” Lyle said, but stressed that the department has no power to enforce Proposition 2 itself. A legislative attempt to designate a state-level manager foundered after egg producers and animal welfare advocates opposed the idea.

Instead the task will fall to local district attorneys and law enforcement. In San Diego County, one the state’s five largest egg producing counties, the Department of Animal Services will be on the front lines. Its approach will largely consist of responding to complaints, said Dan DeSousa, the department’s deputy director.

“The Sheriff’s Department has their hands full with the people. Animal services will deal with the animals,” DeSousa said. “If someone does see something, we expect them to be our eyes and ears and let us know.”

That means local authorities will need to decide, case by case, who is complying. Egg producers have been parsing the law’s wording to determine what passes muster.

In practice, many producers believe, the changes compel farms to shift away from smaller, so-called “battery” cages to more spacious enclosures. JS West & Companies in Merced County has spent millions on switching to “enriched colony” cages.

Animal advocates have assailed the larger colony cages as falling short of Proposition 2’s intent. The Humane Society contends that JS West’s new cages will violate the law. But Proposition 2 supporters say larger enclosures still represent an improvement over the prevailing model.

Meanwhile, grocery stores that stock eggs are relying on their producers hewing to the law. With the exception of massive chains with the capacity to vet suppliers with site checks, stores will be counting on the assurances of egg producers.

“For the most part our independent and grocery retailers are just going to rely on their producers and manufacturers that they will indeed be compliant,” said Ronald Fong, president and chief executive officer of the California Grocers Association.

Some of those eggs will likely be shipped in from across the country. Satisfying California’s appetite requires importing eggs, despite the 5.4 billion eggs California farmers produced in 2012. Attorneys general in six states sued over the new laws and have appealed after a federal judge in Sacramento rejected their claim in October.

Egg producers in other states are now working to catch up to more stringent standards in both California and a handful of other states that have passed laws giving birds more room. Jim Dean, chief executive officer of Iowa-based Centrum Valley farms, has renovated parts of his 7.5 million-hen facility to comply with California’s law but said upgrading his entire operation would make little sense.

“It’d be completely impossible to bring it to California standards,” Dean said. “The cost would be prohibitive.”

One likely consequence of Proposition 2 will be higher prices, Dean said. He estimated that the cost of altering his facilities could drive the price of his eggs up by 18 to 20 cents a dozen.

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