When California’s unprecedented animal welfare legislation, Proposition 2, passed in 2008, animal activists cheered. Many residents who voted for the law believed the result would be “cage-free” hens thanks to how the proposition was marketed.
Sure, the law wouldn’t take effect until January 2015, but when it did we all assumed that the millions of California laying hens would finally be freed from the horrible confinement of the small battery cages – which provide each bird with as little as 67 square inches, substantially less than an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper – in which most birds who lay eggs live out their short two-year lives.
Among those celebrating the victory was Princeton’s Peter Singer, author of the landmark book “Animal Liberation.” Newsweek magazine published an essay by Singer who wrote in 2008 that the new law might signal the beginning of a major societal shift in the public’s attitudes toward animals.
Yet slightly more than a year after Prop 2 took effect in January 2015, the law is a failure, and its promise “has turned out to be more fiction than reality,” according to the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), who during 2015 found “crowded, filthy conditions” and “hundreds of diseased animals, some dying or already dead” at one of the states largest and most well-known egg suppliers, JS West of Modesto, CA – a company that has received an AA rating from the USDA.
Additionally, DxE found that the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Prop 2) requires no inspection of farms where laying hens live, and that there was no enforcement of the law during 2015 despite evidence that the law was violated by at least three farms in the state including the one with the AA rating, JS West, which houses 1.5 million hens. According to a 2015 California Shell Egg Food Safety (SEFS ) inspection report, JS West was “not compliant” in providing the SEFS minimal space requirement of 116 square inches per bird, even less than what is required by Prop 2.
A high-ranking California animal services officer who viewed the DxE video of conditions at JS West said during a recent interview that she believes Prop 2 is “virtually unenforceable.”
“The crowding is so severe that most of the birds will never have a moment where they have sufficient free space,” veterinarian Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg wrote in a statement provided to DxE after viewing the DxE footage.
“Putting hens in 116 square inches of space – that is beyond hell,” the animal services officer said. “You get these birds that are just psychotic out of their minds. They resort to cannibalism, they’re stressed, they’re mad, they’re diseased.”
DxE made ten trips to JS West farms in 2015 during a six month period – seven to the company’s Dwight Bell Ranch in Atwater, CA where 300,000 hens live, and three to their Hilmar Farm in Hilmar, CA which houses hundreds of thousands more. At both locations, JS West has eliminated battery cages, but what they’ve replaced them with are not much better: so-called “enriched colony systems” (colony cages). These larger cages are designed to each contain 60 hens; each bird is supposed to get at least 116 square inches, which amounts to an 11 by 10.5 inch footprint – two inches wider than a standard piece of printer paper.
Based on video footage shot during the investigation, and a 14-page report titled “The Truth About Prop 2: How the landmark animal welfare law fails animals and California” (of which I was a co-author), this is some of what DxE investigators found at JS West facilities:
- Dead and rotting chicken bodies in the cages with live hens.
- Many chickens with grotesque growths and abscesses on their heads and elsewhere.
- Birds starving because their beaks had been mangled from “beak-trimming” – a standard but painful industry practice, in which the tip of a hens beak is burned off, that is supposed to prevent birds from pecking each other to death.
- Birds with serious injuries to their legs and bodies.
- Birds missing large patches of feathers.
- Countless chickens downed and languishing.
- Crowding, which in some cases was so severe hens were forced to roost on top of one another.
- JS West internal documents showing hundreds of birds dying each week in just one of the Dwight Bell barns.
- Hens with long overgrown nails that made it difficult for them to stand or walk.
When Cage-Free Isn’t Cage-Free
During the run-up to the election in which Prop 2 passed, ads like one titled “Uncaged” that featured a song of the same name by Stevie Wonder with images of birds escaping cages, implied that Prop 2 meant cage-free living. Only it didn’t.
The words “cage-free” were not in the proposition, and are not in the law. The actual language states that hens be allowed to “fully [spread] both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or another egg-laying hen.”
For a hen to be able to do that requires 216 square inches per bird, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In a paper, “Space needs of laying hens,” published in British Poultry Science in 1989, British biologist Marian Ellina Dawkins, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving National Knowledge (FRS) and professor of animal behavior at the University of Oxford, wrote that a hen needs between 175 and as much as 420 square inches to flap its wings.
The colony cages that house JS West hens at best provide only 116 square inches, a violation of Prop 2 says DxE.
“[Colony cages are] not compliant with Prop 2,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president for animal protection at HSUS, during an interview this past December. “[Farms in California with colony cages] are taking this gamble that they can just comply with the Department of Food and Agriculture’s [Shell Egg Food Safety] regulations without having to comply with Prop 2.”
In addition to JS West, in 2015 SEFS inspectors found Farmer John Eggs in Bakersfield and Lee’s Poultry Farm in Modesto to be in violation of the SEFS space requirements, which means they were also in violation of Prop 2. Many other farms got a “compliant” rating from SEFS inspectors in 2015 based on “desktop audits” in which the farm’s owner simply wrote that their hen housing met SEFS standards.
JS West isn’t the only California farm now utilizing colony cages. In December 2014 the L. A. Times wrote that “many farmers” were converting to colony cages.
Zero Enforcement of Prop 2
So who has responsibility for Prop 2? And why no enforcement?
One might think it would be the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) since the law is written into the California Health and Safety Code. Not so. Contacted for this story, spokespeople for both CDPH and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) (which inspects egg production farms to insure they are compliant with the SEFS regulations), said they have nothing to do with enforcement of Prop 2.
DxE says the “only agencies that might be responsible for enforcing Prop 2 would be local police departments and local prosecutors.” DxE researchers submitted Public Records Act requests to every county in California and learned that there was not a “single instance of enforcement action taken” during 2015.
The problem, said Shapiro, is that Prop 2 is “a complaint-based law in the same way that all animal protection laws at the state level are.”
And since the only ones with access to the farms are the owners, their employees and SEFS inspectors who have nothing to do with Prop 2, who exactly is going to file a complaint?
Why Prop 2 And/Or Cage-Free Aren’t The Answer
Even if Prop 2 was enforced and even if all birds lived in cage-free housing that still wouldn’t make life bearable for laying hens. The public has been misled. Consumers think cage-free is “a nostalgic return to pre-mechanized farming,” Gregory Barber wrote recently in Mother Jones. “…like your grandfather’s bucolic little chicken farm.”
Under the illusion that “cage-free” is some panacea for hens, in recent years consumers have demanded “cage-free” chicken housing. During 2015 and early 2016, in response to the public pressure, there was a mad rush by many food companies to declare they would go cage-free in the next ten to 20 years. Among the companies who made announcements were McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Burger King, Wal-Mart, Costco, Starbucks, Subway, Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Nestle.
Yet as other Direct Action Everywhere investigations – one in 2014 of an egg farm, Petaluma Farms in Petaluma, CA and another in 2015 of a turkey farm, Diestel Turkey Ranch in Jamestown, CA – showed, “cage-free” can be just as inhumane as even battery cages.
In a 2015 industry-backed report on hen housing by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES), a group of animal-health scientists, egg suppliers and food companies including McDonald’s and Sysco Corp., the researchers found that hen mortality was double in cage-free (also known as aviary) facilities compared to other systems.
In a 2011 report titled “Hen welfare in different housing systems,” whose lead author was Donald C. Lay, Jr., Research Leader, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, it was concluded that, “…mortality can reach unacceptably high levels in noncage systems.”
When it came to air quality, cage-free was 8-10 times worse than other systems, according to the CSES study, confirming what DxE found in its two investigations of cage-free facilities — air so dense with ammonia and dried fecal and feather particulate matter, investigators could barely breathe and the birds showed signs of acute respiratory distress.
In another study published in the Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine journal in 2009 titled “Ammonia, Dust and Bacteria in Welfare-Oriented Systems for Laying Hens,” ammonia levels were found to be “toxic in cage-free housing.”
“There were days when you could hardly stand to walk into that aviary,” Joy Mench, an animal behavior specialist at the University of California-Davis who co-led the CSES study told Mother Jones. She was talking about the Midwestern egg facility where the study was conducted. “You couldn’t see 4 feet in front of your face.”
Cage-free also caused the highest rate of worker illness, according to the CSES study. Like the hens, workers suffered respiratory symptoms. They also suffered injuries from gathering eggs on the floor. Manure management was worse in the aviary systems.
In their report DxE concluded that all of the ways that the industry house egg laying hens – whether in cages, cage-free or free range – “cause significant animal suffering.”
“Until animals are treated as sentient beings, rather than as commodities to be exploited,” DxE wrote, “efforts to improve their welfare will almost inevitably be evaded or ignored.”
How Much Space Is Enough Space?
Another paper by Dawkins and researcher Sylvia Hardie, “Cage size and flooring preferences in litter-reared and cage-reared hens,” was published in British Poultry Science journal in 1983. They studied Ross Ranger Hens that were housed in 4-hen groups at a density of 104 square inches per hen. They gave the hens a choice as to how much space they wanted, allowing them to chose between two cages: small (247 square inches) and large (988 square inches).
Yes, the hens chose the 988 square inch cage.
Michael Goldberg is a former Rolling Stone Senior Writer. He is an animal rights activist and a member of DxE. His first novel, True Love Scars, was published in 2014; his second, The Flowers Lied, will be published in mid-March.