California’s humane farm animal policy should be national policy

GOP members of the House Agriculture Committee, by trying to subvert efforts by California to improve living conditions for commercial laying hens, are ignoring increased consumer concerns across the country for humanizing management of commercial laying hens and broader livestock industry practices.

Tea Party Republicans are sponsors of an amendment to the agonizingly slow 2014 farm bill that would render state laws aimed to protect farm animals from cruelty as a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act.  This is an unprecedented intrusion in agricultural marketing and it will surely result in lawsuits and make marketing in products like eggs difficult and could possibly lead to disruption of egg supplies in some markets.

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Poultry industry use of cages so small laying hens can only sit are seen by consumers and animal welfare advocates as unethical and as cruelty to farm animals. Egg producers have been under pressure from concerned groups for years to provide better management and larger cages so birds have space to stand, turn and move.

Californians put Proposition 2 on statewide ballot in 2008 so voters could be heard on humane treatment and confinement of laying hens. The law, known as the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, also applies to calves for veal and gestating sows.

Voters, by a margin of 64 percent, approved changes to the way these animals are managed, including larger cages for hens. The law takes effect January 1, 2015, and violators will be fined and, possibly, jailed.

Reports on Proposition 2’s economic impact to California show a range of likely consequences from an egg industry exodus from the state, an increase in retail egg prices and a decrease in retail egg prices. California consumers appear ready to accept higher retail egg prices as a trade-off for more humane living conditions for laying hens. California egg producers realize this and will adjust their prices higher to benefit from a consumer willingness to support humane hen management.

It is highly unlikely California voters will overturn Proposition 2. Thus, it is up to Washington’s farm lobby and their trusted Congressional Republicans to come to the egg industry’s assistance with a national marketing standard for eggs that would be more favorable to industry. This egg fight is also an important farm policy debate as too whom will make farm policy, farmers or consumer and activists groups. My long held belief is everyone should have a voice in farm policy.

Due to declining egg production in California, the state imports eggs from other states, including Republican states like Iowa and Ohio. Egg suppliers in these states, in order to continue to sell to the California market, must also comply with the larger cage requirement. Thus, Proposition 2 has national ramifications.

The livestock industry’s management practices of farm animals are increasingly seen as cruel, obscene and inhumane by consumers and concerned advocacy groups like the Humane Society of the United States.

Farm animal welfare is an issue that will be a source of public debate until the livestock sector and Congress adopt humane and ethical national management standards.  

Popular culture including books, films, news coverage, and ubiquitous mobile devices with social media have alerted the public to farm practices, like the painfully small cages for laying hens, that consumers are unwilling to support in the marketplace. Industry must address concerns over such farm practices in a professional and socially responsible way. To borrow a once popular political phrase, a kinder, gentler approach in managing our nation’s livestock resources is needed.

In the absence of a USDA policy on humane management practices for laying hens and other livestock, the people of California have spoken on changing this aspect of poultry management and egg marketing. Farm animal welfare is an important issue to Californians and all farmers, consumers and responsible politicians. California’s humane livestock policy should be our national policy.

Patterson, a former Washington diplomat, is an agricultural economist and a writer/speaker in San Francisco.

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