One for the birds

Proposal to ban cages in chicken farms could pit efficiency against humane treatment

Battery cages at a modern egg-production facility: cruel and unusual punishment?

Battery cages at a modern egg-production facility: cruel and unusual punishment?


Which comes first, the chicken or the cage? That’s one of the questions California voters will have to address this November, and like its philosophical cousin—which came first, the chicken or the egg?—there’s no simple answer.

At issue is the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which if passed will require that “an enclosure or tether confining specified farm animals allow the animals for the majority of every day to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up, and turn around.” The measure is the result of a six-month signature-gathering effort sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-welfare groups. If it becomes law, it will, among other things, require California’s egg farmers to move the state’s 19 million caged birds into cage-free facilities by 2015.

The measure has sparked considerable debate, even among those sensitive to the welfare of farm animals. Case in point: UC Davis professor of animal science Joy Mench and her former graduate student, Sara Shields, who find themselves on opposite sides of the argument, despite sharing similar beliefs about the ethical treatment of farm animals.

“The issue for egg producers in California is that they’re not going to be able to compete,” Mench said, pointing to the higher cost of building and operating cage-free facilities. Out-of-state egg producers not subject to the law will undercut California’s producers. “There’s going to be a rapid dismantling of the egg industry in the state.”

But Shields, who now lives in Nebraska where she works as a research consultant on poultry issues, begs to differ. She counters that an egg-industry study has estimated the increase in the price per egg at a penny, a cost that will not deter families from buying cage-free California eggs. From her point of view, whatever the cost, it’s well worth the price if laying hens are treated more humanely.

Caught in the crossfire are egg producers like Arnie Riebli, the managing owner of Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, which provides more than 90 percent of the eggs consumed in Northern California, including Sacramento. Sunrise Farms has been in business for 100 years; today, Riebli raises more than 1 million hens on seven different properties, using conventional battery cages as well as cage-free systems. He scoffs at the notion that the transition to cage-free production will only increase prices by a penny per egg.

“It’s not a penny per egg,” he said. “If it was, I’d put more cage-free systems in. It’s double the cost.”

Mench said she and UC Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner will release a report this week on the cost differences between the two methods and estimated that cage-free systems cost 25 percent more than conventional battery-cage systems.

From inside Riebli’s trailer-size office at Sunrise Farms, one can hear the incessant squawking of 160,000 chickens housed nearby. On one wall, a framed aerial black-and-white photograph shows the same property as it appeared more than 70 years ago. The layout of buildings hasn’t changed much over time, still retaining the long, thin structures aligned side by side. But in the photograph, little white specks populate the space between buildings—they’re chickens, and all 10,000 were free to wander. Today the birds are kept indoors to protect them from diseases and parasites and, to save space and increase production, are typically confined in small cages. These battery cages are stacked in rows four cages high, allowing each bird 67 square inches of room—about the size of a large shoe box.

Although the egg industry says the cage systems are science-based and humane, many animal welfare activists say they are cruel and restrict natural behaviors such as stretching their wings, perching, dust-bathing and nesting.

As hundreds of veterinarians, businesses, farmers and politicians—including Assemblyman Mark Leno and state Sen. Carole Migden—continue to endorse the measure, the California egg industry is rallying farmers from across the country against it. Since 2002, Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado have passed similar laws regarding the confinement of pregnant pigs and veal calves in crates—both included in the California measure—but California would be the first state to pass a law regarding the confinement of egg-laying hens. The pork and veal industries have begun voluntarily phasing out confinement practices nationally, and animal-welfare groups hope for a similar response from the egg industry if the measure passes in California.

If required to raise only cage-free birds, Riebli says his business could lose its competitive edge first to out-of-state producers, then, as the cage-free movement inevitably spreads nationally, to producers outside the United States, such as Mexico and China. He notes that Hong Kong is currently one of the largest export markets for American egg producers, a situation that could be reversed if the initiative passes.

“If we can ship them east, what’s to stop them from shipping them west?” he asked rhetorically.

Riebli says he is concerned with his hens’ welfare and has taken trips across the world to research the latest in hen-raising technology. One result of the give-and-take between European and American producers is the “furnished cage,” which provides more space, a perch and an area for nesting. He uses such cages in some of his facilities and stands by his methods.

“I use myself as a judge to see what my animals will like,” he said. “I go into the building just as I am. If I’m comfortable without a mask, without any protection, then the birds must be, too.”

Mench sees furnished-cage systems as a viable option for treating the birds more humanely. But as currently written, the statute would ban all cage systems.

“My interpretation of the California initiative is that furnished cages will be banned, too,” she said. “I personally think that’s a shame, because it’s a promising alternative.”

But her former student Shields, who has conducted extensive research on caged and cage-free systems, disagrees.

“I would like to see us raise the bar for the treatment of animals,” she said. “There’s a limit to how high that bar can be set in cages. I don’t think cages have the potential to be humane.”

Are chickens entitled to humane treatment? While Riebli says he raises his flock as humanely as possible—in caged and cage-free environments—he added that “Animals are not human. They don’t have intellect. Chickens probably have brains the size of a pea.”

Shield acknowledged that at this date, science has not established whether chickens have intellect. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for not treating farm animals with as much kindness as possible.

“I think at some point we have to ask, ‘Is this too much to do to an animal?’” she said.

This November, Californians will decide for themselves what comes first, the chicken or the cage.