UK's Guardian Reports NAEF's Opposition to California Egg Law

UK’s Guardian Reports NAEF’s Opposition to CA Egg Law

The March 2 issue of The Guardian reported the NAEF’s opposition to the California egg law.

It’s been over a month since California’s caged hens were given enough room to freely move their legs, but plenty of critics are still ruffled about the new law, which requires that egg-laying hens must be able to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.

Bradley Miller, president of the Humane Farming Association, blasted both the law and its primary sponsor, the Humane Society of the United States, in an editorial published earlier this month in the Sacramento Bee. Calling the law an “obscene reversal of voter intent”, he criticized the Humane Society for allowing language in the law that promotes “the unending use of cages.”

Rather than incentivize egg producers to ditch cages, Proposition 2 has some farmers ordering new, larger cages, while others have simply reduced the size of their flocks.

As an unintended consequence, it’s one of the first times in recent history that conventional egg producers and animal rights activists have both opposed the same law, albeit for different reasons.

“It is bad for the egg farmer,” said Ken Klippen, a spokesperson for the National Association of Egg Farmers, an egg producer trade association. Because of the law, the members of Klippen’s organization have collectively decided to no longer sell eggs in California (NAEF requested this statement be revised as some members of the association are selling eggs in California)

That’s a big decision, given that California is a top consumer of eggs. In 2013, the last full year for which numbers are available, the state imported 9.2m cases of shell eggs – the equivalent of 11.7 million hens – and another 3m cases of eggs in liquid or dry form.

“The cost to implement the requirements in California could cost farmers upwards of $40 per chicken,” Klippen said. “In order to meet the space requirements in the law, some farmers in the midwest are culling (killing) upwards of 40% of their flocks.”

But while conventional egg producers think that the law goes too far and animal rights activists think that it doesn’t go nearly far enough, the net result for California consumers is fairly straightforward: conventional eggs have become more expensive, closing the price gap between traditional, cage-free, and pasture-raised eggs.

In the middle of the pack, from both a cost and a sustainability perspective, cage-free eggs have come under some scrutiny as egg-production practices have gained more attention. Not all cage-free systems are equal, and use of the label “cage-free” is not audited, although some producers do opt to get third-party certification. Hens in a cage-free system are still confined to a barn, and beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are still permitted.

The large size of many cage-free flocks is also problematic, according to University of California at Davis researcher Frank Mitloehner. Manure can build up, causing air pollution and food safety issues. There are also animal welfare issues: “there’s a high incidence of cannibalism in cage-free systems, and also high incidence of bone breakage,” he says.

The best choice, in terms of animal welfare, environmental impact, and human health, is pasture-raised eggs. Unfortunately, these have long been a luxury item, costing around $11 per dozen – more than three times the price of conventionally-produced eggs. But rising demand over the past several years has led to increased supply, and California’s new law has helped to both raise awareness and shrink the price gap, making pasture-raised eggs a viable option for more consumers.

Mike Badger, director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers’ Association (APPPA), says that California’s law makes it easier to compare egg production methods. “At a basic level, when APPPA talks about pasture-raised, we imply that the hens live outside for a significant portion of their life on rotated pastures. That looks a lot of different ways in real-life, but it definitely doesn’t include a confinement barn with cages or free range in confinement with ‘access’ to the outdoors.”

California-based pasture-raised egg producer Jake Townsend sees an even more direct benefit: as the price for conventional eggs goes up, the gap between them and pasture-raised eggs is closing.

“I’ve seen conventional eggs as high as $6 or $7 a dozen this month, and then you’ve got some pasture-raised eggs available at $9.50 a dozen, so all of a sudden people can pay just a couple dollars more for better quality eggs,” Townsend said. “Based on my conversations with both consumers and store owners, that’s a leap a lot of consumers are willing to make.” 

Townsend added that he’s seen a major increase in sales over the past two years and is in the process of building his company up as quickly as he can to meet skyrocketing demand.

Klippen’s organization is concerned about the complaints that animal rights activists have about the California law, as well as the benefit that it is bringing to pasture-raised egg producers. They worry that farmers will invest in transitioning to the new cages mandated by the law, only to be asked to ditch those cages in a year.

“We do not want to make the same mistakes reported by egg farmers in the EU,” Klippen said. “When German farmers made their transition to enhanced colony cages ahead of the EU law in 2012, animal activists then wanted those egg farmers to go to cage-free egg production. Those farmers made the capital investment in the newer cages in the hopes of years of use only to learn the activists wanted to further change how they produce eggs, driving some farmers out of business.”