California voters can help end the era of extreme confinement of animals on factory farms by qualifying an initiative petition in the months ahead and then passing the measure a year from now. The HSUS and a large coalition of organizations will formally launch the campaign next week, with a series of two dozen grassroots meetings to train citizens to collect signatures for the first critical phase of the ballot measure. There’s still time to add your name to the roster of more than 600 volunteers who have already signed up to attend.
If it sounds familiar, it is. California voters backed Prop 2 by an almost two-to-one margin nearly a decade ago, approving a statute to require that hens, pigs, and calves statewide must be able to stand, lie, turn around, and stretch their limbs. Two years later, in 2010, the California legislature and then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted AB 1437 to apply Prop 2’s standards to eggs sold statewide, regardless of where they’re produced. Both measures were set to take effect in 2015, stipulating that every producer and retailer must embrace cage-free as the standard.
But the California Department of Food and Agriculture pulled a fast one in 2013, adopting a rule that seemed to suggest that hens could be legally confined in cages with lower stocking densities. The result was that a class of California egg farmers simply jury-rigged their cages to give the birds a little more space, subverting the purposes of Prop 2. Major food retailers in the state passively accepted that outcome, with most of them buying eggs from producers in California and throughout the country that came from hens in cages, albeit more spacious ones.
We cannot let that stand, and this new ballot measure would nullify that unwarranted, undemocratic state rule. It would also make the law crystal clear: 1) no hens kept in cages in California, and 2) no eggs sold in California that come from hens kept in those cages.
Some farmers recognize that the future of the egg industry is cage-free and they are joining the cage-free movement with enthusiasm. Glenn Hickman is one of America’s biggest and most successful egg producers, and he’s built major cage-free facilities in California. He’s pledged to convert his operations from cage to cage-free, and collectively, those barns will supply an enormous portion of the market. He and other key egg producers are backing the new ballot measure, recognizing that good business and better treatment of animals are in alignment.
“The egg industry’s going cage-free, and the sooner the better,” Hickman told me. “We’ve been steadily shifting our company’s flock from cage to cage-free, including all cage-free production in the Central Valley of California.”
He’s on the board of United Egg Producers, the national trade association for the industry. That trade association, which raised nearly $10 million against Prop 2, says it’s neutral on this ballot measure. UEP says that more than anything, producers want certainty. They want to know that if they build new housing systems, they’ll be able to sell eggs from those new systems.
A disreputable offshoot group, the National Association of Egg Farmers, has announced it’s against the measure. And the Association of California Egg Farmers has filed a competing measure, seeking more time for the transition to cage-free, even though voters and lawmakers intended producers to be compliant with Prop 2 and AB 1437 two years ago, in 2015.
Since Prop 2, The HSUS has led a national campaign to convince food retailers to phase in cage-free purchasing practices and to stop buying any eggs that come from hens in cages. Paying careful attention to the voters’ rejection of cage confinement systems, an astonishing 300 companies have joined our campaign — almost every big-name brand in food retail.
Indeed some major food retailers, such as Costco and Compass Group, have made cage-free pledges that are soon to take effect, and they’ll provide shelf space for farmers who have made investments in cage-free systems. Many major retailers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, have pledged to switch entirely to cage-free, but their deadlines are still far off.
The transition to cage-free cannot suddenly happen in 2025, which is the date that a large number of retailers chose as the deadline for their commitment. Farmers need to build new housing systems year by year in order to convert the entire egg industry to cage-free by that date, given the magnitude of the conversion and the billions of dollars that must be invested.
That’s where our new ballot measure comes in. It will require housing systems by 2019 that are impractical for cage confinement. And by 2021, it’s an absolute cage-free requirement.
But this new ballot measure promises to do more than convert the egg industry. It will also bring us closer to a gestation-crate-free future in the pig industry. It will stipulate that by 2022, any bacon or other pork products must come from operations that do not confine sows in two-foot-by-seven-foot crates, which prevent them from moving more than a few inches.
That squares with many existing corporate commitments. McDonald’s and so many other major producers committed to phase in that commitment for pork by that same year.
While the veal industry is small, and has already largely converted to cage-free, the ballot measure ensures that there’ll be no retreat on those pledges and actions.
We are in good legal standing in advocating for these new policies. While Prop 2 and AB 1437 faced legal attacks from egg farmers and Midwest politicians acting on behalf of agribusiness interests, California prevailed in a series of state and federal challenges to these laws.
Congressman Steve King of Iowa, though, is acting on behalf of agribusiness interests through a different channel — working to have the federal government preempt state animal welfare laws related to agriculture. In 2013, he tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment to the Farm Bill to prevent California or any other state from adopting its own animal welfare or food safety standards, such as Prop 2 and AB 1437. Many lawmakers, embracing states’ rights principles, worked to nix his amendment when the final Farm Bill went to President Obama for his signature.
But King is at it again, and he’s aiming to attach the measure to a new Farm Bill, which is being developed and should be passed before next November’s elections. We’ll have to work hard to block his effort to subvert states’ rights and gut animal welfare laws.
And remember, King not only doesn’t want the states to pass food safety and animal welfare laws; he doesn’t want Congress to pass those sorts of laws either. He fought an effort in 2011 in Congress to require a national minimum standard for space for laying hens. In fact, he’s actively opposed all animal welfare laws at the federal level, including laws to combat dogfighting and cockfighting.
A year ago, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure nearly identical to the one being proposed in California. Voters approved it with a staggering 78 percent of the vote, with 348 of 351 municipalities favoring the measure. The National Pork Producers Council, the National Association of Egg Farmers, and Protect the Harvest opposed the measure. But voters rejected their archaic and regressive thinking, and embraced a common-sense animal welfare standard in agriculture.
It’s clear that a vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals and believe that animals built to move should be allowed to move. Immobilizing animals as a production strategy is deplorable, and now that people see there’s a better way, they’re demanding legal and corporate standards that enshrine that principle. The public and America’s major corporations are on board.
I hope you’ll join us and get on board with our campaign.