Most of the time, we Midwesterners ignore the wacky West Coast: L.A. smog, horrendous traffic, and a Botoxed, Rollerblading, surfing, star-struck society.
The Golden State, however, is home to big-time agriculture, too — 76,000 farms that led the country in cash farm receipts in 2006 of $31.4 billion. That’s more than the combined totals of No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Iowa.
So, when one of California’s famous and numerous ballot propositions happens to target agriculture, we need to sit up and take notice.
“Standards for Confining Farm Animals” or Proposition 2, on this fall’s ballot, would restrict housing of commercial egg-laying hens. Although the language is no-doubt purposely nonspecific, the expectation is that, if passed, regulations would eliminate the use of cage systems for laying hens, and could mean that even noncage systems typically used now would also be restricted.
The measure would also impact veal calf production and sow housing (incidentally, gestation crates are already being phased out by the state’s largest pork producer), but the focus in California has been the impact on the state’s egg industry.
A win in California would have ripples in other egg-producing states, and certainly in Ohio, which ranks No. 2 in the country in egg production. One big state down, a handful more to go.
The University of California reports that noncage systems (not organic) have costs of production that are at least 20 percent higher than the existing cage housing systems. Resulting retail prices for eggs are at least 25 percent higher, and are often double the price of eggs produced from current systems.
The university report explains the national market for eggs and puts this blunt summary in black and white: “Our analysis indicates that the expected impact would be the almost complete elimination of egg production in California… Noncage production costs are simply too far above the costs of the cage systems used in other states to allow California producers to compete with imported eggs in the conventional egg market.”
One ballot vote could wipe out the state’s egg industry.
The California Veterinary Medical Association board of governors is supporting Proposition 2, but said “any modifications of the current system should be made in consultation with California’s food animal veterinarians.” The board’s position ticked off several members — including the chair of the association’s agriculture committee — who have formed a splinter group called the Association of California Veterinarians to oppose the ballot measure.
The American Association of Avian Pathologists are opposing the initiative, saying the proposition is “serious flawed from both scientific and public policy perspectives and in our opinion would inhibit continuing progress in improving housing systems, welfare of laying hens, food safety, and animal and human health.”
All animals deserve to be treated humanely, and it may be that the egg industry needs to continue to take a closer look at the size of its cages. But the California ballot measure dictates production practices with no regard to industry input. It would improve one aspect of poultry housing — greater freedom of movement — but experts say that could compromise bird welfare in other ways, particularly protection from disease and injury. It could also increase the risk of salmonella contamination on the porous eggs.
When you’re watching the presidential election results in November, keep an eye out for the results on California’s Proposition 2. I’m pulling for a “no” vote.