California Aims for World’s Highest Farm Animal Welfare Law
New law would ban the sale of all eggs, pork, or veal from a caged animal, putting the state ahead of the EU – if campaigners can get enough signatures
By Charlotte Simmonds
They call Chris Winn the signatures guy. A delivery driver by day, he spends his free time drumming up support for animal rights. “When I did the shark fin ban I got 4,000 signatures,” says Winn, 53. “Usually I’m the top guy in California.”
Now he’s on a new mission. It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in San Francisco and Winn is jubilant, bundled in a hat and sweatshirt, scouting for signatories for a proposed law that would ban the sale of any eggs, pork or veal that comes from an animal that spent its life in a cage. If passed it would be the most progressive farm animal welfare law in the world.
Photo courtesy of UGA College of Ag & Environmental Sciences
The law is only possible thanks to the quirky US ballot measure system which allows organizations and individuals to bypass politicians and put potential laws directly to a vote by the general population – as long as they can get enough signatures to support the measure in the first place. In California that means collecting a tremendous 365,000 signatures – and so for the last four months animal lovers across the state have been fanning out on street corners every chance they get, clipboards in hand.
So far they are nearing 200,000, but even with less than two months to go before the 1 May deadline, Carol Misseldine, the campaign’s northern California coordinator, is optimistic. “The response has been very positive,” she says when we meet, as volunteers assembled for a day of signature hunting. “Most people see it as a no-brainer. That being said, we are all gonna have to hustle.”
The new measure would ban cages of any kind for hens, gestation crates for mother pigs, so narrow they can’t turn around, and veal crates for calves, which restrict movement for their entire lives. By the end of 2019 all hens would have to be cage-free – living, at minimum, on an open barn floor or in an indoor aviary with multiple levels for birds to go up and down.
It would have national implications, applying not just to in-state famers but to any farmer doing business with the world’s sixth largest economy. “This is history in the making,” says Josh Balk, the vice-president of farm animals protection for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), one of the numerous organizations that has supported the law along with Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion in World Farming and local groups such as the San Diego Humane Society. “This is the greatest shot farm animals have ever had.”
Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming, calls the measure “a remarkable step” that would put California ahead of the EU – which has banned battery cages since 2012 – and even cage-free leaders such as Germany and the Netherlands.
The last couple of years have seen some steps forward for farm animal welfare across the US. In 2015 McDonalds announced that its US and Canada locations would be going cage-free, impacting 2bn eggs a year, while 2016 saw pledges from major supermarkets including Safeway, Albertsons, and Walmart – which alone sells 25percent of the nation’s groceries – to go cage-free by 2025.
And California has been ahead of the curve, passing Proposition 2 in 2008, which banned battery cages and said animals must have space to turn around, lie down and stretch their limbs. But in 2016, Massachusetts made history with the first sales ban on products from confined animals, which passed by a landslide 78 percent. That currently makes it the best place to be a farm animal in America – a trophy California wants to reclaim. “There’s a certain pride around here,” says Misseldine. “We want to be back in the lead.”
But some US farmers and industry bodies are deeply concerned by the changes. Nationally, the US Department of Agriculture points out that with just 10percent of the country’s 300 million hens currently in cage-free housing, meeting demand would require a “momentous” shift and cost egg producers billions. In Iowa, the nation’s largest egg producer, a bill currently poised to become law would require grocers selling cage-free eggs to stock cheaper, caged eggs as well. Lawmakers say the bill, which would affect grocers participating in a federal food-assistance program, is an effort to help low-income shoppers.
Pork, veal and egg producers say California’s plan will raise prices for consumers, come at a high cost to small farmers, and in the case of veal, which has largely moved away from crates, ban a problem that doesn’t exist. For farmers, the shift can be crippling. “When a farmer invests in a cage system he’s hoping to get at least a 20-year lifespan,” explains Ken Klippen, the spokesman for the National Association of Egg Farmers. “Then if just a couple years later he’s got to go cage-free, which can cost up to $45 per chicken, the financial burden is so oppressive that some just give up.”
Californian poultry farmer Frank Hilliker is making the switch to cage-free, but he’s worried about the price tag. His farm, Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs, in Lakeside was started by his grandparents. After Prop 2 he converted several barns to cage-free and others to cages compliant with the new space requirements. “To date I’ve spent about $650,000,” Hilliker says. “The bank owns me right now. And I’m not even done. In total I’ll probably have spent about $800,000.”
Hilliker sees cage-free as a good business opportunity, but says being pushed to change too fast is unsustainable. “The voters of California shouldn’t be legislating the way I farm. Do they know more about egg farming than I do?” Chickens live well in cages, he adds, because they’re cleaner (wire floors allow bird droppings to pass through, rather than gather underfoot) and less stressful – hens are quick to establish a pecking order and, in large, free roaming groups, birds are more vulnerable to attack.
“Look, I love being a farmer,” he says by phone while driving into California’s central valley. “I take more pride in that than anything. But sometimes I just get down a little bit, because people consider us the enemy.”
But polling in April by the HSUS found 72 percent in favor of the new law. If the campaigners get the signatures they need, there is an excellent chance that it will be passed. “Factory farming has only been a part of our reality since the 1950s,” says Misseldine. “I think it will be a relatively short phenomenon, historically speaking. It’s just so clear that it is inhumane not to let animals that were born to move to move.” Should the measure get the go ahead, she’ll find out if Californians agree.
Back in San Francisco, Winn is making steady progress with a crowd gathered to watch the Chinese New Year parade. A dragon puppet snakes its way past as music soars above the street. Cassandra Taylor, a 35-year-old vegan from nearby Alameda, adds her signature gladly, calling the idea “common sense”.
“When I see these chickens all cooped up, stuck on top of each other, it’s not good. They can feel things. It’s just wrong.”