J.S. West has new hen shelter in the works for Livingston
By: By John Holland
Published: Wed, 09/16 @ 12:00AM
J.S. West and Cos., an egg producer based in Modesto, announced Tuesday that it will build a henhouse aimed at complying with Proposition 2.
This will be the first commercial project that meets the standards for hen enclosures approved by state voters last year, company President Eric Benson said.
The Humane Society of the United States, a leading backer of the proposition, disagreed. It said the new housing, increasing the floor space per hen to 116 square inches, would leave the birds too cramped.
Benson said he was not surprised by the reaction and plans to move forward with the $3.2 million project. It will house about 150,000 hens, 8 percent of the company's flock, at one of its operations near Livingston.
"No matter what the Humane Society thinks, we believe at J.S. West that this housing is Proposition 2-compliant," Benson said.
The project is scheduled for completion in June. Benson said he would like to convert the rest of the company's henhouses by the measure's 2015 deadline, but its wording needs to be clarified before much more money is invested.
Jennifer Fearing, senior state director for the Humane Society, said both sides in the battle over Proposition 2 agreed last year that it would not allow the enclosures planned by J.S. West.
"The amount of space proposed here is clearly not enough space for 'fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure or another bird' as defined under Proposition 2," she said in an e-mail.
Fearing said that "it's unwise of producers to spend millions of dollars to build a facility that will be obviously illegal in 2015."
The wire cages used for most U.S. egg production can have as little as 67 square inches of floor space per hen, according to guidelines from United Egg Producers.
Fearing said Proposition 2 requires at least 216 square inches per hen, the industry group's standard for cage-free production.
The debate involves a key part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley economy. Merced County produced about 1.63 billion eggs last year, 31 percent of the state's total, according to the county crop report. Stanislaus County turned out 653 million.
The state's egg industry warned that requiring too much hen space could drive it out of business, because out-of-state producers could keep selling low-cost eggs from hens in the smaller cages.
The Humane Society argued that the new housing will add just a penny to the cost of producing an egg. Industry people countered that this would be enough to wipe out their profit.
The industry also argued that the current cages allow natural hen movement and that abused birds do not produce eggs.
The measure won approval from 63.5 percent of the voters in November.
Benson said the company is taking a risk by building a henhouse over the objections of measure backers.
"We felt now was the time to show Sacramento, the industry and animal welfare interests how a post-Proposition 2 facility might look," he said in a news release. "We are under serious time constraints, with only 4½ years to decide the future of California egg production, and we need to move the dialogue forward."
The new henhouse will have compartments holding 60 birds each, with portions where they can nest, perch and scratch at litter. The current, much smaller cages typically hold six hens each.
The space per hen in the new housing follows rules adopted for the European Union a decade ago.
"We are pleased to see a California farmer stepping forward to construct a new hen-housing system that will meet the voters' desire to provide egg-laying hens more space and comply with Proposition 2," said Debbie Murdock, executive director of the Association of California Egg Farmers, in a news release.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.