Uncaged in California
This morning, I did a series of television segments in San Diego – the latest stop in a statewide tour of California – about the implementation of the state’s landmark animal protection laws, specifically those statutes that ban cage confinement of laying hens and require any shell eggs sold in the state to conform to that standard. Many of the news anchors asked me about recent increases in the price of eggs in California and repeated the framing remarks from some critics of the laws who say the price increases are due to their recent implementation.
The reality is, egg prices are never entirely stable – they fluctuate, as do other commodities, based on a wide variety of factors. Look at the price of oil, and its recent steady decline; that won’t last forever, and prices will again spike based on supply, demand, the presence of new supplies, and all sort of geopolitical concerns. Generally, eggs are a very cheap form of protein, but food retailers have long inflated prices for cage-free eggs – not because of additional, underlying costs, but simply because they could charge a premium and get away with it. Cage-free eggs are viewed as a value-added product, and farmers and retailers can get more for the product as consumers are willing to pay more – because of their strong commitment to associated values and ideas about what’s right for both people and animals.
I think some of that is going on in California – egg sellers are taking advantage of the change in policy on Prop 2 to secure some additional profits. There’s also an avian influenza outbreak in Canada and Mexico, and that is allowing more U.S. egg producers to export eggs, which has added to demand and thus increased prices in the markets. Some egg producers are shrinking their flock sizes and also making investments in cage-free systems or larger cages, but that’s just a small part of the equation and it’s also something many would do anyway. Egg farmers often have to make capital improvements once their equipment depreciates.
Prop 2 gave egg producers six years to convert their housing systems to cage-free, and AB 1437 gave food retailers four years to deal with supply chain issues. If they had started on conversion early in the process, this transition might not seem as difficult to them.
Many major producers, across the nation, are converting entirely to cage-free, and that’s a smart business move. The American public is unlikely to accept cage-based systems, since egg production is basically the last bastion of extreme confinement in industrial agriculture. The veal industry has almost entirely converted to crate-free systems, and today, Smithfield announced that it’s more than 70 percent converted to crate-free production systems for its company-owned breeding sows. These industries, with the veal industry generally being more willing to change than the pig industry, are on an inevitable course toward more extensive systems and away from crate or cage confinement.
I’m traveling through California for the rest of this week to rally supporters throughout the state and to celebrate the implementation of two of the most important laws in our era of animal protection. But I’m also here to ask food retailers – from Trader Joe’s to Save Mart to McDonald’s – to honor the letter and spirit of Prop 2 and stop purchasing any animal products from cage-confinement systems. The egg industry needs to change here in California and throughout the nation, and it would be the forward-thinking business decision for this transition to start in earnest now.
I hope soon we can look back on the era of extreme confinement on factory farms as a sad but closed chapter of our history. California’s actions will kickstart the move away from cages and usher in a new, better era of higher-welfare agriculture in the nation. That’s something to celebrate, but it’s also a task that we must help along through determined, focused advocacy.