3 January 2018

California Ballot Initiative to “Prevent Cruelty”

The Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act sounds like a great idea.
But is it? What is it?

(This is the Act as of December 2017.)


“Prevent Cruelty California” is a campaign to put a measure on the November 2018 state ballot to remedy the failure of Proposition 2 in November 2008 to deliver on promoters’ promises. 63% of California voters supported the measure believing it would ban cages for egg-laying hens.

Two hens nestled together in a cage.
Battery-caged hens. Photo by Mercy For Animals, Weaver Brothers Egg Farm

Prop 2, which was to have taken effect in 2015, required that calves raised for veal, pregnant pigs, and hens used for commercial egg production must have enough space to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around without bumping into other animals, walls or bars in the confinement area. By far, the majority of animals affected would have been the state’s 20 million egg-laying hens.

Groundbreaking as the new law seemed to be, it did not require California egg producers to eliminate cages. Instead, it was crafted to make cage systems for egg-laying hens more difficult to maintain, due to the, albeit minimal, space requirements for confining hens once the law took effect. California egg producers were expected to switch to “cage-free” housing, in which thousands of hens are enclosed in large “floor systems,” or in “multi-tiered” systems fitted with platforms designed to crowd more hens into a volume of space enabling egg producers to make more money from the facility.

Enriched battery building
"Enriched" cage facility, NPR, Jan.26, 2012

2015 came and went, largely due to the vague language of Prop 2, which allowed California egg producers to continue keeping the majority of hens in barren battery cages, or in “enriched” battery cages. Each caged hen in the United States is recommended by the U.S. industry association, United Egg Producers, in its 2017 Guidelines, to have 67-86 square inches of “usable space per bird” – 67 square inches for the smaller white hens, 86 square inches for the larger brown hens, “to optimize hen welfare.”

“Prevention of Cruelty” Proposal

The stated purpose of the proposed 2018 ballot initiative is to “upgrade California’s laws relating to the extreme confinement of farm animals.” Under its provisions, California egg producers would still have ample time to implement it, and if by the end of 2019 or 2021 or 2022 or 2024 or whenever, they still hadn’t done so and didn’t want to, they could lobby the CA legislature to change the law. Normally, the CA legislature may not amend or repeal an approved measure without submitting the change to voters, but this ballot measure includes a clause waiving this protection.

So how would the new ballot measure “prevent cruelty”? It wouldn’t. At best, the cruelty could be reduced. Compared to barren battery cages, the proposed law requires cage-free housing to include “scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas” for the hens. Yet even these amenities can pose problems for the deeply overcrowded hens to deal with.

Big dutchman facility
Big Dutchman multi-tiered cage-free facility

Worrisome terminology in the proposed California ballot measure:

  • A farm owner or operator shall not “knowingly” cause any covered animal to be confined in a cruel manner. An operator could claim that he or she didn’t “know.” The word is slippery.
  • A cage-free system is one in which “hens are free to roam unrestricted.” In principle, yes, but in practice, no. At most, each hen in a cage-free system has a maximum of 1.5 square feet; more often 1 square foot (144 square inches). This tiny allotment per hen does not facilitate “roaming.” Practically speaking, the terms roam and unrestricted are misleading.
  • Regarding egg-laying hens, the proposed law in its current form defines “Confined in a cruel manner” as follows:

    After December 31, 2019, confining an egg-laying hen with less than 144 square inches of usable floor space; OR After December 31, 2021, confining an egg-laying hen with less than the amount of usable floor space required by the 2017 edition of United Egg Producers’ Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg-Laying Flocks: Guidelines for Cage-Free Housing.

In other words, by the end of 2019, each “cage-free” hen would have to have 1.5 square feet of living space in a building with no elevated platforms, and 1 square foot of living space in a building providing “access to multiple elevated platforms with usable floor space both on top of and underneath the platforms.”

Hens crowded tightly together in a building

Crowding and Contamination, Density and Despair

The barren battery cage and the “enriched” battery cage are the cruelest of all living systems for hens. Currently, 13 million California hens are in cages. At the same time, the “cage-free” environment in standard commercial operations consists of thousands of brown or white chicken bodies from one end of the building to the other. Many more hens may be added to the “multi-tiered” version of a cage-free facility. One result of this massive, multi-dimensional density of hens is that, if those on the platforms try to flutter down to the floor, they can break or dislocate their wings, legs or breast bone in their effort to land in a space that is free of hens.

As for the provision in the proposed law that each hen must be able to fully extend her limbs, particularly her wings, what this really means is that, in the cage-free environment, one hen at a time could presumably spread both wings, not that all hens simultaneously could do so if they wished. Recall that one square foot equals 144 square inches and that half a square foot equals 72 square inches. A three-to-four-pound hen needs a minimum of 74 square inches merely to stand, 197 square inches to flap her wings, 135 square inches to ruffle her feathers, 172 square inches to preen her feathers, and 133 square inches to scratch the ground ( Poultry Digest, May 1990).

No Escape But In Brutal Death

The stunning process can be observed through windows along the entire tunnel of the Stork system. Photo: Marel Stork
Chicken gas chamber

In November 2017, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted “Why We Oppose California’s Farmed-Animal Initiative and You Should Too,” stating in part: “No one who has seen, either in person or on video, the inside of ‘cage-free’ factory farms could describe them as anything other than severely crowded hellholes. And the end for the hens in such places still comes when the petrified birds are roughly rounded up—frequently resulting in broken legs or wings—transported in all weather extremes, and subjected to the horrors of the slaughterhouse. So much for ‘humane eggs.’”

In our visits to “The Happy Hen” and Sauder’s Eggs (“Welcome to Humane Heartland”) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and to Black Eagle Farm in Nelson County Virginia, United Poultry Concerns witnessed the sadness and madness of these “cage-free” operations, including the deafening voices of thousands of distressed hens. We experienced firsthand the attitude of the operators toward the hens, who are nothing to them but containers of “golden” eggs. The owner of “The Happy Hen” joked when we commented on the terrible condition of the hens’ feathers: “We have a saying: The rougher they look, the better they lay.” Ralph Glatt, the owner of Black Eagle, smirked when we mentioned the industry practice of killing “spent” hens by shoving them into metal boxes and hosing them to death with CO2, “I think it freezes their lungs.”


What the Proposed Law Does NOT Do:

Chicks in a wire cage

  • The proposed California ballot measure does not cover the hens during their first 5 months of life while they are being raised to maturity in wire cages, as in this photograph.
  • It does not apply to hens subjected to catching, culling, or transport.
  • It does not apply to hens subjected to mass disposal during disease outbreaks.
  • It does not address the destruction of male baby chicks at birth.
  • It does not apply to hens at slaughter.
  • It does not include live animal markets.
  • Person in a hen building wearing a mask.
  • It does not address the practice of painfully debeaking egg-laying hens – which may be done once, even twice to a hen, in keeping with United Egg Producers’ 2017 Guidelines on “therapeutic beak trimming.”
  • The proposed measure does not address the toxic ammonia levels of 20 parts per million in confined-hen buildings, which the egg industry allows to reach even higher levels of toxicity to accommodate “emergencies” of unspecified duration. All mass-production systems are full of atmospheric poisons and contaminants that cause chronic respiratory infections and painful eye irritation in the hens who, unlike the workers darting in and out of the facilities with protective face masks, get no relief.

A High Crime is a Misdemeanor

Finally, any “person” (individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, etc.) who violates any of the proposed provisions is guilty, not of a felony, but of a misdemeanor, punishable, if convicted, by a fine not to exceed $1,000, or by imprisonment in the county jail for a period not longer than 180 days, or both.

Needless to say, a misdemeanor charge is very minor and not an incentive to prosecution. Even if prosecution were pursued, it would not impose a hardship on a typical farmed-animal production operation. What government agency, under the proposed ballot measure, would actually, as opposed to nominally, safeguard the inmates of the nation’s henitentiaries? Our bet is none.
Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns

What Can I Do?

  • If you’re considering gathering signatures for the November 2018 ballot initiative in California, please arm yourself with the facts to inform people accurately what the proposed measure would and would not do for the hens. Study the wording of the ballot measure, and decide for yourself if putting your time into this campaign is a good way for you to help the hens over the long run.
  • Please do not urge, encourage or ask people to purchase and consume “cage-free” eggs or any variation of “humanely-raised eggs,” “cruelty-free eggs,” and the like. As animal advocates, we cannot give people permission to make chickens and other animals suffer “humanely” for our appetites. We cannot disperse false assurances.
  • Please DO actively promote egg-free food products, dining, and recipes. Please promote food products, menus and recipes that are free of animal products.
  • Order Replacing Eggs from United Poultry Concerns. 16 delicious recipes. $1.50.

Book cover: Replacing Eggs