State Issues

It’s high time to eliminate cage confinement for egg-laying hens

Thousands of dead hens are disposed of at an egg laying facility off Carpenter Road in February 2012. Two people face felony charges of animal cruelty in the incident in which officials estimate about 50,000 hens died.
Thousands of dead hens are disposed of at an egg laying facility off Carpenter Road in February 2012. Two people face felony charges of animal cruelty in the incident in which officials estimate about 50,000 hens died. Modesto Bee file

Think of it. A Stanislaus County couple starved their five dogs for so long that by the time authorities showed up, four were dead or had to be euthanized. The couple’s only defense? That other dog owners sometimes do the same thing.

Well, these aren’t exactly the facts of the case. There weren’t five animals being starved; there were 50,000. And they weren’t dogs; they were chickens confined on a mega-egg factory. The part about the couple’s defense? That was the same – that other egg producers have starved birds. Now, Judge Thomas Zeff will decide whether these two Stanislaus County egg company executives should stand trial for felony animal abuse.

The case raises questions about how much inhumane treatment we’re willing to tolerate, as a society, when the victims aren’t dogs or cats, but rather chickens or other animals used for food.

At a hearing last week, the egg producers’ defense argued that for years, purposeful starvation of birds was standard in the egg industry. Called “forced molting,” the practice involved starving birds for up to two weeks at a time in order to manipulate the birds’ egg-laying cycle. Though now widely shunned, some egg producers still do this.

It’s an inhumane practice that also happens to be illegal in the Golden State. California’s anti-cruelty code doesn’t exempt farm animals or customary agribusiness practices from its protections. Under state law, these birds should have as much protection from being starved to death as dogs. (Even in other states, legal tolerance of purposeful farm animal starvation isn’t a given. In Washington state, for example – which, unlike California, does exempt “accepted animal husbandry practices” from its anti-cruelty code – an egg producer pleaded guilty in a nearly identical case of intentionally starving his hens when they were no longer useful to him.)

Moreover, as bad as starvation is, it’s typically not chickens’ biggest problem. In addition to being starved, the victims in this case were also locked in cramped cages, each bird given less space than an iPad on which to live its whole life.

That’s how the vast majority of egg-laying hens in America live. In California, voters passed a law in 2008 called Proposition 2, to afford animals more room. At the time, proponents of that measure, as well as UC Davis and virtually all egg producers, argued that Proposition 2 would result in a shift to cage-free production. Since the law’s passage, some egg producers have claimed they now interpret the law to simply mean slightly bigger cages. It’s a cynical flip-flop that represents a real distortion of the voters’ will.

We’ll have to wait to see how Zeff proceeds with the criminal case before him. Hopefully he’ll be able to bring justice to the animals who suffered so terribly. Certainly, were the animals dogs, there’d be felony cruelty charges.

And regardless of how this case turns out, we can and should look beyond it by demanding that the egg industry stop abusing birds as horribly as it does. Just as most egg producers – this Stanislaus case notwithstanding – have now stopped starving their birds, it’s time for egg producers to also leave cage confinement in the dustbin of history. Already, major egg buyers from Burger King to Aramark are demanding cage-free production from their suppliers, and more are certain to follow.

California egg producers can meet this growing demand while respecting the will of voters by shifting to cage-free production systems. It’s better for the birds, it’s what the people want, and it’s an important step toward creating a kinder world where the law recognizes that all animals, whether they bark or cluck, deserve protection from inhumane treatment.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at Humane Society of the United States. Follow @pshapiro on Twitter.

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