HSUS says planned $3.2 million facility won't comply with law

By CECILIA PARSONS

Capital Press

A Modesto egg producer plans to invest $3.2 million in a facility it says will meet the requirements of Proposition 2, but supporters of last fall's ballot initiative are crying foul.

Prop. 2, passed last November, prohibits 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."

The measure requires hens be able to extend their wings without touching other hens.

The measure would outlaw cages currently used by egg producers by 2015.

J.S. West & Company announced Sept. 15 that it plans to start construction within two months on a "enriched colony system" for egg-laying hens. Eric Benson, president of J.S. West, said in a phone interview that the company believes the system, which gives each hen nearly 116 square inches of room plus other amenities, will satisfy Prop. 2 requirements.

The measure did not include minimum space requirements.

"We do not know if Humane Society of the Unites States believes that," said Benson. It doesn't.

Shortly after J.S. West made its announcement, HSUS made a vehement statement that the plans won't fly with the group. Jennifer Fearing, HSUS's California director, said in a statement that California egg producers should begin their efforts to move to cage-free systems to comply with the law.

She also asserted that West should know that "enriched" cages would not meet standards sought by Prop 2.

"A legal sheet of paper's worth of space for each bird is not even close to compliant with California law, and it's unwise of producers to spend millions of dollars to build a facility that will be obviously illegal in 2015," she said in a statement.

In the system that J.S. West plans to build, 60 laying hens are housed as a group in four-foot by 12-foot-off-the-ground enclosures. Each colony of birds has perches, scratching areas, claw shortening mats and privacy areas for laying eggs.

The enclosures meet the standards of the European Union.

Benson said the company's move proves its willingness to help define the debate and show how a facility can comply with the law.

The company also hopes construction of the facility will spur continued debate and encourage the governor, legislators, rule makers and other participants to provide clear guidance and specific standards so that this kind of investment can continue and the egg industry can stay in California.

"We have no intention of leaving," Benson said. "If this doesn't work there might not be a choice."

California's egg industry is the fifth largest in the nation. Producers here have been grappling with how to meet the requirements of Prop. 2, which does not provide specific space requirements.

HSUS holds that only cage-free operations will comply.

J.S. West will build in Merced County at an existing facility.

The new system will house 150,000 birds, which represents 8 percent of the company's total hen population. Benson said he hopes to start construction within two months and complete the project by June 2010.

Debbie Murdock, executive director of Association of California Egg Farmers, said J.S. West's plan is based on internationally recognized and researched standards, and will comply with the animal welfare objectives in Prop 2.

"We are pleased to see a California farmer step forward to construct new housing that will meet voters' desire to provide egg-laying hens more space," Murdock said in a press release.

The industry has been struggling with the space issue. Murdock said the proposition was vaguely worded and the industry proposed the EU model as a solution to the impasse. She also noted that the state has not come forth with any clarifying standards for hen housing.

HSUS maintains that state agencies and the legislature lack any authority to clarify the measure's language or to set standards beyond those approved by voters.

Cecilia Parsons is a staff writer based in Ducor. E-mail: cparsons@capitalpress.com.

 

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