Breaking news: First-ever criminal charges brought against egg producer for violating California Prop 2
Eight years after voters approved the landmark ballot initiative, and two years after the law took effect, a law enforcement agency today brought criminal charges against a California egg producer, Hohberg Poultry Ranch, in southern California, with 39 counts of violating Prop 2 and 16 other counts of violating the state anti-cruelty code. Specifically, the case was brought by the San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos, who has a unit devoted exclusively to animal cruelty crimes.
Ramos has a proud record of pathbreaking enforcement of animal cruelty laws. In fact, he may be responsible for the most famous prosecution of animal cruelty ever. In 2008, Ramos brought charges against slaughterhouse employees after HSUS investigators documented cattle being dragged by chains and pushed by bulldozers into the kill area. Their prosecution of key parties, along with the HSUS investigation, led to the largest meat recall in American history – more than 143 million pounds. It also led to President Obama barring downer cows in the American food supply.
Now, more than eight years after that case, the San Bernardino district attorney has conducted the first enforcement action under the terms of Prop 2 – which voters approved just months after our Hallmark/Westland investigation cast doubt on the credibility of humane assurances offered up by the meat industry. Prop 2 was the landmark measure that banned extreme confinement of veal calves, breeding sows, and laying hens. Its passage led to a re-examination of the way hens are raised in the United States, triggering a national movement that has resulted in more than 200 of the nation’s biggest food sellers – from McDonald’s to Walmart to IHOP – pledging over time to sell only eggs from hens free of cages. In Massachusetts, voters in November approved a ballot measure, with a 78 percent “yes” vote, to ban cage confinement production in the state and to forbid by 2022 the sale of eggs that come from farms that confine animals in cages.
It all started in California with Prop 2, and that electoral outcome reverberated throughout the agribusiness industry, legislatures, and the corporate food sector. But on the ground, it’s been frustrating to see egg producers flout the standards. As I wrote in 2009, both sides were clear during the Prop 2 debate that the outcome of the measure’s passage would be a cage-free egg industry. But some egg producers changed their tune after the election, claiming they could still keep their birds in cramped cages. Their litigation efforts failed time and again, but they eventually got the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to promulgate regulations unrelated to Prop 2 that attempted to allow cage confinement, albeit with larger space requirements. The problem for them is that the egg producers must comply both with the CDFA rules and the higher standard of Prop 2. In this case, the evidence is clear that the defendant was confining hens in a manner that is nowhere near compliant with Prop 2. Other egg producers are keeping birds in larger cages, but The HSUS and other proponents of Prop 2 were quite clear that these cages also violate Prop 2. In fact, the agriculture industry long argued that Prop 2 was a de facto cage-free requirement, and new outlets covering Prop 2 did the same.
Ramos’s announcement of charges today should reverberate throughout the California egg industry. And it’s my hope it causes all farmers in the state to get all of the birds out of cages, which would both meet Prop 2’s standards as well as meet market demands.
Indeed, that’s the way things are moving, especially so because so many major food retailers have publicly pledged to move toward cage-free. There’s also been something of a building boom for cage-free in the state, and that includes one major Arizona producer who has committed to building cage-free facilities for as many as 10 million birds in the Central Valley of California.
With the marketplace moving so decisively toward cage-free, there’s really no debate about the future of egg production in California or any other state. Today’s action reminds egg companies that the law must speak, and with a unit of the San Bernardino District Attorney’s office devoted exclusively to animal cruelty crimes, that’s exactly what happened today.