California voters sent a strong message to meat and dairy producers on Election Day, approving Proposition 2 by a nearly two-thirds majority. As stated on the ballot, Prop. 2 "requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." Once the law is enforced, beginning Jan. 1, 2015, it will mean that all of California's eggs meet the requirements to be labeled "cage-free."
The ballot initiative, which was supported by the Center for Food Safety, was drafted in response to growing consumer concern over the treatment of animals raised for food. Prop. 2 addresses common factory-farm practices that include the use of veal crates—in which calves are tethered and unable to turn around or lay comfortably; gestation crates—in which female breeding pigs are confined for four months during pregnancy; and battery cages, in which egg-laying hens are kept in spaces smaller than a letter-size piece of paper, unable to walk or spread their wings for a year before they are killed.
Californians for SAFE Food (SAFE stands for Safe, Affordable and Fresh Eggs) opposed the measure, arguing that the costs incurred by farmers to renovate their existing facilities before the Jan. 1, 2015, deadline will translate into dramatic price increases for consumers and could drive the market to Mexico for cheaper, less-regulated eggs. Californians for SAFE Food also sounded the alarm that giving hens more room would make them susceptible to diseases like bird flu, and that food-borne bacteria such as salmonella will be more prevalent if restrictions on hens' environments are loosened.
A July study titled "Economic Effects of Proposed Restrictions on Egg-Laying Hen Housing in California" conducted by the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center predicted that the initiative will put California egg producers at such a disadvantage to out-of-state competitors that it could lead to "almost complete elimination of egg production in California within the six-year adjustment period."
Adele Douglass, founder and executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, said that what some see as a limitation placed on California's egg producers is actually an opportunity. "The fact that this initiative passed by a 60 percent majority sends an overwhelming message that consumers want cage-free eggs," Douglass said. "This is not animal advocacy groups or the Humane Society, this is coming directly from consumers."
In much the same way that other states market their products as the cream of the crop—such as Florida oranges or Idaho potatoes—California has an opportunity to capitalize on consumers' desires for more humanely-raised food. "Californians will be able to say that every egg coming out of their state is cage-free," Douglass said. "They have a huge opportunity to promote their eggs as the best in the country."