In just three weeks, two of the most consequential animal protection laws passed anywhere in the United States will take effect in California. Proposition 2, a citizen initiative, requires that all breeding pigs, veal calves, and egg-laying hens in the state have enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around freely, and fully extend their limbs. And Assembly Bill 1437, which California lawmakers enacted in 2010, will extend Prop 2’s farm animal welfare standards to all shell (whole) eggs sold in the state, no matter where the hens are raised.
That’s a sea change for farm animals, and in particular for the roughly 260 million American egg-laying hens trapped in barren battery cages. These wire contraptions confine each hen to less space than a shoebox, preventing them from performing even their most basic natural behaviors. More than 30 nations have banned, or are phasing out, battery cages based on humane concerns—including every European nation, Israel, and most recently, India.
Now California can lead the United States toward a cage-free future, if food retailers and producers cooperate with what California voters and consumers want. Some major food companies—including the food service giants Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo—have already converted to 100 percent cage-free shell eggs in their California operations to comply with the laws. Others—from Burger King to Unilever (Best Foods/Hellmann’s)—are going cage-free nationally, recognizing that consumers want a better standard. Eggs are affordable either way, so why put the animals through so much privation? Why not let them flap their wings and move around and not be so severely overcrowded?
Some companies, though, still don’t seem to be ready for California’s new laws. Their procrastination has been encouraged by a series of four legal challenges against the laws filed by some egg producers and Midwestern politicians who want to fight animal welfare improvements.
Now that judges have soundly dismissed those challenges, it’s time for every food retailer in California—from upscale San Francisco restaurants to supermarkets to the tens of thousands of restaurants and other food service providers across the state—to comply with the law. Cage-free systems are clearly compliant with Prop 2 because they provide hens with enough space to perform the basic natural behaviors that the law requires. Battery cages, which deprive hens of the ability to act out so many natural impulses, are clearly not.
The debate over Prop 2 centered on the question of whether California would go cage-free. Voters made a judgment about the measure based on that question. In our first-ever press release about Prop 2 in October 2007, we wrote that the law “will prevent the use of inhumane factory farming practices such as … battery cages for egg-laying hens.” Our opponents acknowledged this, citing a University of California analysis that assumed Prop 2 “would eliminate the use of cage systems for laying hens in California,” and writing after our victory that "[c]ages for laying hens … will certainly be outlawed.”
California citizens and legislators overwhelmingly voted to end battery cage confinement. In fact, almost two thirds of Californians voted for Prop 2—more than any other citizen-led ballot measure in American history at that time—even after our opponents wrongly claimed in the state’s official voting guide that Prop 2 would “forc[e] hens outdoors for most of the day.” And the California Legislature passed AB 1437 by bipartisan votes of 65 to 9 in the assembly and 23 to 7 in the senate in order to make sure that eggs sold in California come from hens housed in systems consistent with Prop 2.
Now, six years later, it’s time for food retailers and egg producers to honor the outcome of that political debate. All retailers and egg producers in California should go cage-free, as many are already doing. That complies with the law, is consistent with the values of consumers, and gives animals a better life.
California-based Bon Appetit Management Co., a food management giant serving more than 500 locations, recently wrote, “In the run-up to the January 2015 California deadline, every company, lobbyist, and lawmaker should get on board with cage-free compliance. Let’s give consumers what they’re asking for—and move toward a more sustainable future for all of us in the process.” I couldn’t agree more.