Humane Society says planned systems will not comply with Proposition 2

By CECILIA PARSONS

Capital Press

Many California egg producers will turn to colony housing systems for their hens in spite of protests by Humane Society of the United States that the systems comply with Proposition 2.

Valley Center egg producer Ryan Armstrong, who was heavily involved in the effort to defeat Prop. 2, said he believes up to 80 percent of producers will change their systems before the 2015 deadline to comply with the law mandating more space for egg-laying hens.

Prop. 2, passed by California voters last November, amends existing animal welfare laws to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Violating the measure is a misdemeanor offense, carrying a fine and up to a year in jail.

Nearly all commercial egg producers in the state employ cage systems and meets industry standards for space. However, voters last November approved a ballot initiative that requires farm animals be given enough space to fully extend their limbs. There were no minimum requirements and HSUS, which backed the initiative, said the measure effectively bans cages for laying hens.

Last week, when Modesto egg producer J.S. West announced it is spending $3.2 million to build the first "colony system" for housing laying hens, HSUS said the system would not fulfill requirements of the law.

The colony systems are in place in Europe where 50 million hens are housed in them.

The systems do not have individual cages, but instead groups of 60 hens in a four by 12 foot enclosure raised off the floor that includes perches, and a secluded area for egg laying.

Armstrong said that while the Humane Society says the enclosure gives each bird only about 115 square inches, because hens aren't confined to a fixed spot they have much more space than that.

"That's like saying your kid only has his desk at school for space," Armstrong said.

Producers prefer to keep the hens off the ground because it lessens chances for salmonella contamination.

The systems give the chickens more room than cage-free and the industry believes they are a good alternative, Armstrong said.

The downside is that 30 percent fewer eggs will come from California producers who opt for the colony system. That is because buildings can't house as many hens with the colony style. Cage-free isn't feasible for the entire industry, he said.

The courts will ultimately end up deciding the fate of California's egg laying hens.

University of California Davis law professor Floyd Feeney predicted that "interpretation issues" will be up to the court.

Prosecutors will have discretion in filing charges against producers who are cited for not complying the law. There could also be enforcement issues with Prop 2. Producers could be cited and charged with a misdemeanor that could call for a fine or jail time.

The Humane Society could not enforce the law, but could bring non-compliant producers to the attention of law enforcement.

Producers have sought clarification of the Prop. 2 standard, and have asked the Legislature to set a measurable space requirement.

Under the state's constitution, however, the Legislature can't change the statute language approved by voters last November.

Feeney said lawmakers can only propose amendments to the statute that would then have to be approved by voters.

Armstrong said he plans to move toward the colony housing to meet the deadline.

If the J.S. West housing seems to meet the standard, he said, most major producers will move in that direction. Smaller producers will be forced out of business because of the costs.

Some larger producers will leave the state, he said.

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