Update: The 6-state lawsuit mentioned in this piece has since been thrown out by a U.S. District judge.
Ed Olivera is making a sizable investment in his San Jose, California-based egg operation this year. And just in time. He and other egg producers in the state now have less than four months to meet new, more humane standards for laying hens set to go into effect on January 1, 2015.
Olivera is “taking out partitions,” between the battery cages many of his laying hens live in, making the remaining cages larger. He’s also putting in a brand new building filled with an “enriched colony system,” or enriched cages, which will house 200,000 hens. The standard battery cage is only 67 square inches (see the photo to the right), and has a footprint smaller than a letter-sized piece of paper, but the new cages hold more birds and allow around twice as much space (116 square inches) per bird. Now the legal standard for all laying hens in Europe, enriched cages are still a new concept in the U.S. (See an example from the EU below.)
“It’s costing me over $3 million and I will end up with less capacity,” says the egg producer. Even with the new building, the number of hens will drop by 100,000 birds. As a result, Olivera expects to have to raise his prices–around 10-15 cents per dozen eggs. He’s not worried about consumers paying that price, but he says a truly cage-free system would cost at least 25 cents more per dozen. (Cage-free eggs generally cost between $3.00 and $5.00, depending on whether they are organic.)
A relatively small number of Olivera’s eggs–around 30,000–are already raised in completely cage-free systems, meaning the hens live in large flocks in large, indoor facilities, but they are free to move and fly around the space. But he’s not planning to get rid of cages altogether. And he says the Pacific Coast Egg and Poultry Association, the state’s industry group, has assured him that he doesn’t have to.
When asked about the new rules, Olivera said, “I know that it does not require cage-free.” Meanwhile, he calls the new, larger cages, “California Compliant.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS)—the group that campaigned to put the new egg rules in place as part of the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act—begs to differ.
“There’s no doubt that enriched colony systems are an improvement over battery cages,” says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at HSUS. “At the same time, it’s not appropriate to equate them with cage-free systems.” The latter is a far cry from true free-range or pasture-based egg operations, which are seen as the most humane option, but can cost around twice as much as conventional eggs.
When California voters approved Proposition 2, the 2008 ballot initiative called for “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs [to] be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” In the months leading up to the initial campaign for Prop. 2, Shapiro says, egg producers and the media interpreted the rule as requiring cage-free systems. But now, many have changed their tune.
For sustainable foodies willing to shell out as much as $8 for local, pasture-raised eggs at the farmers’ market, this difference might seem moot. But when you consider the fact that 88 percent of the eggs eaten in this country come from hens that live in battery cages, there’s a lot at stake in the Golden State.
And it’s not just eggs produced in California that matter. All eggs sold in the state must meet the new standards starting next year, meaning that producers across the nation are either making changes or watching closely as the latest legal battle unfolds, hoping they won’t have to.
A Shifting Definition of Humane
The conflation of the cage-free and colony cage systems appears to have begun when HSUS joined forces with the national egg lobby, United Egg Producers (UEP), in 2012. Together, the two groups tried to pass an egg bill as part of the federal Farm Bill that would have done away with battery cages nationwide and mandated that U.S. producers replace them with enriched colony cages. Why did HSUS and UEP work together?
HSUS liked the idea of a nation-wide standard, but both parties agreed that if it passed, the national egg bill would have nullified Prop 2. At the time, UEP saw enriched cages as “a compromise that responds to the concerns about animals with requirements that the egg producers can accept.”
Around that time JS West & Companies, California’s largest egg producer, installed the nation’s first enriched colony system for around 300,000 of their 1.8 million hens. The company courted media attention and installed a live feed of the new hen houses, which cost $3.5 million each. JS West’s Vice President Jill Benson says the company plans to retrofit their remaining facilities, which will mean housing around 400,000 fewer birds.
When speaking to the San Jose Mercury News, C.J. Brantley, a spokesperson for the company admitted that putting in the enriched system–and not a cage-free one—was a risk. The Mercury News reported:
It’s not clear if JS West has gone far enough with the design of its new cages. “The company is taking a “significant risk,” Brantley said. “We believe wholeheartedly that this is a very good way to fill in that void between the proposition and reality.”
Then, last fall, the Superior Court of California upheld Prop. 2, countering California egg producer’s claims that the language in the bill was too vague. “The fact that the statute defines confinement limitations in terms of animal behaviors rather than in square inches or other precise measurements does not render the statute facially vague,” the court ruled.
Then, on February 4, 2014, the Farm Bill passed without the national egg standards component, and UEP and HSUS parted ways. And on the very same day, the Missouri Attorney General announced a lawsuit designed to block the California egg rules, claiming the state is “attempting to nationalize its animal protection standards.”
In question was a companion bill passed by the California state legislature that would prohibit out-of-state eggs produced in extreme-confinement conditions (i.e., battery cages) from being sold in California. The rules are also set to go into effect next January and could have a sizable impact outside the state. In fact, in the months that followed, five other states joined Missouri in its lawsuit, including Iowa, the largest egg producing state. Together, the states are said to produce more than 20 billion eggs every year, 10 percent of which are sold in California.
A New York Times article about the lawsuit that ran a month later presented JS West’s caged operation as a model of compliance. “California’s egg producers have interpreted their state’s laws, which go into effect Jan. 1 next year, to require 116 square inches per bird,” it read.
As you might imagine, this sequence of events has HSUS frustrated. “Egg producers are cultivating confusion between cage-free and enriched colonies,” says Shapiro. He contends that the intent behind the language in Prop. 2, which reads “confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely,” was intended to give producers some flexibility.
“Prop. 2 is a performance standard, not an engineering standard. Most of the time businesses want performance standards, because they want to be able to innovate,” Shapiro says. “But we believe cage-free systems are inherently compliant because they allow the birds to spread their wings.”
As for the 116-square inch standard that the industry has adopted, HSUS argues that it would take 216-square inches–or around a foot and a half–to truly meet the standards as written in the initial bill.
Jill Benson, senior vice president of JS West says the company’s interpretation of the law will stand up come January 1st, but she also acknowledges that “different people read it different ways.”
“What we did as a family is we looked for a solution,” says Benson. “Long before 2015 we decided that [colony cages] would meet the performance descriptors that you find in the law.”
Is she worried about HSUS’s interpretation of the law? “That’s a very difficult one to defend,” she says. “When you’re talking about performance behavior, and you can see that she can clearly turn around, sit down, stand up, and turn around with her mates in the colony closure.”
There are some egg companies making the switch to completely cage-free systems. San Diego-based Hilliker’s recently received media coverage for its conversion (see its new cage-free barn on the right). A handful of others are following suit, including several out-of-state companies like the Midwest-based Opal Foods, which recently announced plans for a new facility holding 800,000 cage-free hens. Whether there will be enough to fulfill the demand in a state that consumed nine million eggs last year is hard to say.
Mike Sencer, an Executive Vice President at Hidden Villa Ranch, a national egg company based in California, is predicting an egg shortage in California come January. Sencer is in charge of the company’s cage-free and organic division, which has been expanding rapidly over the last few years.
“We’ve put in 10 times [the cage-free facilities] that we did last year and last year we put in 3-4 times what we had the year before,” he says. Now they’re converting two facilities, one of which will hold half a million hens, to supply the demand in 2015.
Like the rest of the industry, Sencer has his eyes fixed on the Missouri lawsuit at all times.
“If there’s a stay on 1437 [the companion to Prop. 2, which mandates eggs coming from out of state must meet the same humane standards] or it gets thrown out as non-constitutional,” he says, cheap battery cage eggs will “continue to flow in from out of state.”
“Why would a company like mine invest huge amounts of money in cage-free if we felt like we were going to have to compete against enriched colony or some kind of caged eggs coming from the Midwest?” he asks.
If and when the lawsuit is resolved, egg producers will start the 9-month process of raising the hens. Chickens raised for meat only require around seven weeks of feeding before they’re ready for market, Sencer points out. “But a laying hen doesn’t lay its first egg until about 25-26 weeks. It takes a lot of capital to feed and take care of that bird for the time its not producing.”
Although Prop. 2 won by a margin of 63 percent, capturing the votes of 8 million people (more than any other ballot initiative in the state’s history), those votes did not necessarily reflect the voter’s spending habits. “During the first couple of years after Prop 2 passed, about 5 percent of all the eggs being consumed in California were cage-free,” says Sencer. Now around 25 percent of the eggs Hidden Villa sells—under a handful of different brands, including Horizon Organic, Nest Fresh, and Gold Circle Farms—are cage-free. “It has been a slow, expensive climb,” he adds.
Nationally, the number is smaller. According to the American Egg Board, cage-free egg production is at roughly 12 percent.
“In 2005, when we first started working with companies to switch over to cage-free…the number was closer to 1 percent,” says HSUS’s Paul Shapiro. “This is an increase of roughly 33 million [cage-free] hens.”
Humane vs. Efficient?
Prop. 2 voters might not have realized that they were voting to increase the number of industrial hen houses around the nation. But there’s no doubt that more humane systems are less efficient. In fact, the change due in January could be one of the biggest steps away from efficiency in a food system where efficiency has long been king.
Ed Olivera is keenly aware of the additional resources and land needed to raise the same number of hens in larger spaces. “We’ll use the same lighting for 14 hours a day. You still need lights, just because it has fewer birds,” he says. “The employees have to walk just as many aisles. The electricity for heating and cooling–we’ll use less, but not 50 percent less.”
And while the amount of space required to produce the eggs eaten in California will surely go up, Sencer says he doesn’t think that increase will take place within the state. Instead, the overall production will likely go down with the new rules. “There’s just not the agricultural land and barns available in California. A lot of that land has gone to development,” he says.
Instead, states like Missouri and Iowa, which are already filling up with concentrated animal feeding operations and meat processing plants, will soon take on more of the brunt of California’s more humane-egg consumption, at least for now.
Consumers who really want to see fewer laying hens raised in crowded quarters might also take comfort in the fact that efforts to replace industrially-produced eggs with plant protein, especially in processed foods like baked goods and mayonnaise, are gaining ground in the marketplace.
The Pacific Coast Egg Association did not respond to our requests for interviews.
Photo credits, from top: Juhan Sonin, Humane Society of the U.S., Big Dutchman, a screenshot of KBPS news footage.