Egg producers say HSUS offers mixed messages on rules
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- The attorney representing a California egg producer group says the organization sued to invalidate Proposition 2 even though it supports the idea in concept.
The Association of California Egg Farmers has spent four years trying to get specifics as to what the proposition requires and wasn't able to get them, said Dale Stern, the organization's attorney.
The group supports a measure in Congress cosponsored by the Humane Society of the United States that would set a national standard of 125 square inches for each chicken.
However, producers say they've gotten mixed messages from HSUS as to what it would consider acceptable, so many have delayed building new facilities as required by Jan. 1, 2015.
"HSUS is all over the board," said Arnie Riebli, the ACEF's president and an egg producer in Sonoma County. "It depends on what day we talk to them, what the story is for the day."
Riebli said the HSUS has supported measures with different standards in different states, such as 116 square inches per bird in Oregon and Washington. He said growers have been told the benchmark for California should be 200 square inches.
HSUS attorney Jonathan Lovvorn told the Capital Press that "the debate is about performance versus engineering." The birds merely need to be able to engage in "natural behaviors" such as turning around and spreading their wings, he said.
"Statutes don't always come in sizes," said Lovvorn, who is based in Washington, D.C. "We don't want to tell farmers what kind of cages to use."
Lovvorn noted a colony cage system built by Modesto-based producer J.S. West could accommodate between 100 and 300 square inches per bird, depending on the density.
"So the idea that these guys don't know what to build is just a story they've created to cast doubt on Proposition 2," he said, adding a federal judge already upheld the law in August.
ACEF filed its suit Nov. 16 in Fresno County Superior Court to overturn Proposition 2, the 2008 initiative backed by HSUS that sought to free chickens from the cramped, bare-wire cages used by many producers. The egg organization contends the law is unconstitutionally vague.
Stern said growers don't want to make a multimillion-dollar investment in new housing systems that could end up being considered illegal. The Sacramento-based producers' group estimates the new systems will cost growers more than $400 million and take three years to build.
The group maintains it decided to sue after the state Department of Food and Agriculture commissioned a study at the University of California-Davis that concluded the law is unclear.
The ACEF researched the initiative after it was passed and found that it could not be amended through the regulatory process to spell out which enclosure systems or sizes were acceptable, Stern said. When J.S. West built its new facility, the producer asked a judge to rule as to whether it met the law and the judge declined, he said.
"There's been ongoing negotiations with state officials and with the sponsor of the legislation ... on a number of occasions to try to get clarity," Stern said.
"This lawsuit does not seek clarification," he said. "That's been tried and failed on different fronts. Our last gasp now is to have Proposition 2 invalidated because it's too vague. It's not our wish, but it's unfortunately all we're left with."
Riebli, the Sonoma County farmer, said he has yet to begin building new housing for his more than 1 million chickens. He said the reason growers don't just build the larger enclosures comes down to money; a facility that accommodates 200 square inches per bird is 60 percent more expensive than one that provides 125 square inches.
He said the uncertainty has forced at least three commercial egg farms in California to shut down in the last six months, and he knows of eight more that could close in the next two years. The state has about 32 major commercial producers, he said.
Riebli said he plans to stay open.
"We certainly want to and that is our intent as of today," he said. "Depending on how much adversity we see ahead of us, we'll probably make that decision at some point down the road."