The sky isn't falling quite yet on San Diego County's egg industry since the passage of Proposition 2, a statewide initiative requiring farm hens and certain other animals to be housed in improved conditions. But industry officials say that unless they get a better idea of what, exactly, the new law means, the end is almost certainly near for the state's $337 million egg industry.
Californians overwhelmingly approved Prop. 2, officially billed as the Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act and unofficially as the Cage-Free Act, in November. The initiative mandates that egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal and pregnant pigs be given enough room in their pens to be able to stand up, extend their limbs and turn around freely. Supporters say the measure is both humane and easy to adapt. Opponents say the estimated $50 million cost of complying with the law will put the state's already struggling egg farmers out of business.
San Diego County produces about 800 million eggs annually, a full tenth of the state's egg market. The statute doesn't take effect until 2015. Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Association, says that gives egg farmers some breathing room to figure out the ins and outs of a proposition even some proponents admit was vaguely written.
Egg farmers “are trying to get some legal clarification about what the proposition means,” Mattos says. “What standards will be in place? Who's actually going to monitor for compliance? You've got six years before it's put in place, so we still have time to deal with it.”
One way the industry is considering dealing with it, Mattos says, is to get legislation passed that would keep out-of-state eggs that aren't cage-free out of California. That would prevent local farmers from having to compete with producers with lower overhead—and, thus, cheaper eggs.
“The sad part of this is you can ban certain operations in California, but industries outside the state will still be sending their products in,” he says.
But Nigel Walker, owner of the cage-free Eatwell Farms in Dixon, near Sacramento, says “legal clarification” is often a euphemism for “legal challenges.” Instead of challenging the proposition in court, he says, farmers and trade groups would be better off sitting down with one another and charting a course for complying with the law.
“A much more constructive line of movement is for the industry to get together and hash out some rules and regulations on housing minimum requirements for chickens,” says Walker, who was a vocal proponent of the proposition. “Yes, everyone needs the proposition to be clarified and to know very clearly what is expected of everybody. But I'm not sure that the courts are the best way to do this. I think everyone should get together and work it out. Unfortunately in this country, that tends to happen with the assistance of high-priced lawyers.”
No lawsuits challenging Proposition 2 have been filed to date.
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