California Is About To Make Egg Production More Humane, By Giving Hens 70 Percent More Space

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Starting next year, 15 million egg-laying hens in California and millions more providing out-of-state eggs to Californians will be required to have 70 percent more space — going from a minimum of 67 square inches each to nearly 116 square inches, about a 10.7-inch square of space per bird. California is the biggest consumer of eggs in the country, and this new regulations is part of a broader national effort to shift industry focus away from production efficiency to include animal and environmental welfare.

Chad Gregory, CEO of the United Egg Producers, told Bloomberg that the industry “can and will adapt” and that the push for bigger cages is part of a “larger consumer trend toward food that’s perceived as more humane and sustainable.”

Originally passed in 2008 by a wide margin, California’s Proposition 2, meant to phase out production of eggs from crammed hens, was expanded upon in 2010 by a bill requiring all whole eggs in the state to “come from hens able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and spread their wings without touching each other or the sides of their enclosure.”

Since the passing of the law, egg producers have sued a number of times, with all suits to date being dismissed. Two are currently under appeal, including one brought by a group of state attorneys general.

On Friday, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times endorsed the bill, saying “it would be prudent for egg producers to end their legal challenges and start retrofitting their barns:”

It is clear that these measures reflect a growing concern on the part of consumers about the welfare of farm animals. Just because they are certain to end up on a dinner plate or in a barn producing eggs or milk doesn’t obviate the need to treat them humanely during their short lives.

Some 95 percent of U.S. eggs are held in some kind of cage. But even making the cages bigger is viewed as a moderate step, As Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro told NPR this week, “The birds never go outside, are unable to spread their wings, and are essentially immobilized for their entire lives.”

That’s why some egg producers are going above and beyond the requirements by setting up completely cage-free barns with varying perches. As the LA Times editorial board notes, major food companies are following suit. For instance, Aramark, a food services company, has said that the 30 million eggs it buys ever year in the U.S. will come from cage-free hens by the end of the year. Burger King is committed to getting all of its eggs from cage-free hens by 2017.

This week, Starbucks announced plans to stop selling eggs from caged hens. The Seattle-based company also wants its suppliers to abandon other inhumane techniques such as fast-growth practices for poultry and dehorning and castration for other animals. Starbucks has more than 12,000 retail outlets across the country.

“Starbucks is meeting and exceeding the standards of California’s new farm animal welfare laws, and we applaud them and ask for other food retailers to make similar announcements,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “The best enforcement of Prop 2 will come from retailers who decide not to purchase eggs from hens in any kind of cage.”