Egg producers have been scratching their heads over California's Proposition 2, which voters there passed four years ago.
The proposition requires anyone selling shell eggs in California to provide enough space for chickens to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.
The problem is that language is vague. Does that mean each chicken should have its own cage or that no cages should be used? Or does it mean something else?
That is the $400 million question for egg producers, who face spending that much on new hen houses to satisfy the law. A further consideration is the fact that any producer anywhere in the nation is bound to follow the same vague requirement if it sells eggs in California. The deadline for building the facilities in Jan. 1, 2015. Failure to comply with the law could result in 180 days in jail or a $1,000-a-day fine.
Exact specifications that meet those requirements have proved to be elusive. Every time producers come up with a design for chicken cages the Humane Society of the United States, the animal rights group that wrote and sponsored Proposition 2, says it's inadequate.
"HSUS is all over the board," Arnie Riebli, president of the Association of California Egg Farmers, told our reporter. "It depends on what day we talk to them, what the story is for the day."
"Statutes don't always come in sizes," HSUS attorney Jonathan Lovvorn then told our reporter. "We don't want to tell farmers what kind of cages to use."
That is an interesting comment since HSUS and another egg producer organization together have floated legislation in Congress that would do just that. The bill would set a minimum cage size of 125 square inches for each chicken. That bill, which would supersede Proposition 2 and any other state laws on the subject, has yet to gain any momentum in a Congress preoccupied by saving the nation from hurtling over the "fiscal cliff."
A Congress dealing with trillion-dollar deficits, spiraling tax rates, a faltering economy and a loss of credibility may not have chicken cages at the top of its to-do list.
One would think that HSUS would simply say 125 square inches satisfies Proposition 2.
In the meantime, egg producers are frustrated by Proposition 2 and, arguing that it is unconstitutionally vague, have gone to court to have it tossed out.
So here's a proposition of our own: The Humane Society should build a prototype chicken house that meets the requirements of Proposition 2. The HSUS has lots of money -- it spent more than $4 million selling Proposition 2 to voters -- and the cost of a prototype should be well within the organization's $131 million annual budget.
Come to think of it, if HSUS leaders think they know how to produce eggs efficiently and at a cost consumers will swallow, it can just go ahead and run its own chicken farms. There's always room in the business for people who think they know what's best for everyone else.