LIVINGSTON -- Nineteen million California chickens produce about 5 billion eggs a year, making them the nation's fifth-largest supplier of omelets and scrambled eggs.
Now, animal welfare groups are hoping to change the way the hens live and lay by collecting enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot asking state voters to give the hens more room to roam.
The measure would force farmers to change current practices that keep most egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant pigs in small cages or boxes for most of their lives. It would require that enclosures be big enough for the animals to fully extend their wings or legs, lie down, stand up and turn around.
Farmers say the animals already are well-treated and that less efficient methods would drive up the cost of eggs and other foods by a quarter to three times as much.
"They want to end animal agriculture as it exists," said Gary West, whose fam-ily-owned company, J.S. West & Co., raises 1.5 million laying hens near Modesto. "They don't want you to eat eggs, eat pigs, any of that."
West is the new chairman of the board of United Egg Producers, a national trade group that developed voluntary animal welfare guidelines for caged chickens. About 95 percent of laying hens are raised in cages.
The effort by animal welfare groups is part of a recent national movement to ask voters to help decide how their food is raised.
Arizona voters last year made that state the first to outlaw veal crates, and the second, along with Florida, to stop confining breeding pigs in so-called gestation crates. Oregon's Legislature also enacted a law this year banning gestation crates.
California would be the first to expand living space rights to chickens.
The Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary, another animal rights group, are zeroing in on a California product valued at $180 million a year. Much of it comes from hens in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
One cage, eight chickens
The groups want to bar the use of cages like those stacked four high in a climate-controlled Central Valley henhouse.
Seventy-two rows of the cages stretch nearly the length of two football fields. They hold 152,000 hens that each day send about 140,000 eggs rolling along a series of conveyer belts.
In each of the roughly two-foot-square wire cages are eight chickens, kept in crowded but austerely sanitary conditions. These cages slightly exceed the industry standard minimum size, which gives each bird a floor space of about two-thirds a letter-sized sheet of paper.
"Even animals raised for food should be treated humanely," said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president and chief executive officer.
Pacelle said the veal and pork industries already are phasing out inhumane practices. "The egg industry -- the factory farming segment of the industry -- has not made any pledges, and it's arguably one of the most inhumane practices in agriculture."
Animal welfare groups plan this week to start collecting the nearly 434,000 signatures they will need by Feb. 28 to qualify the initiative for the November 2008 ballot.
Farm groups are preparing to fight the measure, which they fear will win over a sympathetic, largely urban electorate. A competing initiative would leave egg producers' current practices in place.
Although keeping hens in cages does restrict their movement and natural behavior, a well-run operation also is clean and efficient, said Joy Mench, a University of California at Davis professor of animal science, who helped write the industry guidelines.
The proposed initiative also would ban gestation crates used for more than 20,000 breeding sows in California. The crates let the sows stand up and lie down, but they can't turn around.
Rodeos, fairs, 4-H, research and veterinary programs would be exempt from the ban, which would take effect in 2015 if voters approved it.
Back in the henhouse, hens clucked softly as they ate from an automated feed trough. They seemed content, if only because they have known nothing else, said Tom, a manager with 35 years in the business. He asked that his last name and the name of the producer not be used because he fears radical animal rights groups.
"If we treated our birds bad, we wouldn't be in business very long," he said. "Any animal won't produce if it's under stress."