Although eggs aren't something we normally consider when we look back over 2008, the year now winding down indeed marked a turning point for the egg industry. Just over one month ago, Californians voted in a landslide to pass Proposition 2, which phases out one of the egg industry's most prevalent-and most abusive-practices. Receiving more than eight million votes, the measure was the most popular of 12 initiatives on the state's ballot and has implications far beyond the state's borders.
Prop 2 phases out "battery cages," which the egg industry uses to confine most of the country's 280 million egg-laying hens. These tiny cages confine several birds apiece. The average stocking density could hardly be more restrictive: only 67 square inches per bird. In other words, each caged hen has less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper on which to spend her entire life.
It's hard to imagine a worse fate.
Battery-caged birds can't engage in many of their most important natural behaviors. The restrictive, barren cages prohibit them from spreading their wings, nesting, perching and dust bathing, forming a positive social hierarchy, and even walking. Their lives truly are miserable.
Prop 2 was the first time that voters had an opportunity to ban battery cages. Their voices couldn't be clearer: more than eight million of them, or 63.5% of the electorate, voted in support of Prop 2. And now the question will become whether the egg industry will do better when it comes to animal welfare.
Indeed, many egg producers manage birds without battery cages. These birds still don't go outside and, like their battery caged counterparts, may still have part of their beaks cut off. They can, however, walk, perch, dustbathe and lay their eggs in nests --all behaviors permanently denied to hens confined in battery cages. The industry would do well to provide laying hens with at least these basic improvements offered by non-caged systems, preferably with an eye to allowing outdoor pasture access in the future and simultaneously discontinuing beak trimming. Drs. Ian Duncan and Sara Shields, conclude: "Regardless of how a battery-cage confinement system is managed, all caged hens are permanently denied the opportunity to express most of their basic behavior within their natural repertoire. The science is clear that this deprivation represents a serious inherent welfare disadvantage compared to any cage-free production system."
Battery cage confinement also presents serious food safety concerns. Some studies have found that caged flocks have 20 to 25 times the odds of salmonella contamination than non-caged flocks (1,2). And esteemed organizations such as the Center for Food Safety endorsed Prop 2 and called for an end to battery cages (3).
Further, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production-an independent panel chaired by former Kansas Governor John Carlin that included former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman-concluded that the egg industry should phase out the confinement of laying hens in battery cages because they don't allow birds to exhibit normal pecking, scratching and roosting behaviors.
The standard industry practice of confining laying hens in cages is an institutionalized cruelty that must be abolished. It's heartening to see that farm animal welfare is getting increased attention in public policy. But Big Agribusiness needs to stop fighting common-sense reforms. As we move into 2009, food safety and undeniable public concern for animal welfare are two good reasons to do just that.
3 Californians for Humane Farms. 2008. Yes on 2 packet. July 30.