Egg company claims compliance

Photo of J.S. West Joe Gardner, left, of California egg producer J.S. West, and company production manager John Bedell pose with one of the enlarged hen enclosures that the company is installing in a new barn.

J.S. West says new hen cages satisfy Prop 2 requirements

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

California egg producer J.S. West says it has invested in new hen cages to push the debate over what will satisfy the state's farm-animal welfare law.

The company is the first conventional producer of eggs to claim compliance with Proposition 2 using hen enclosures.

The Humane Society of the United States, the initiative's principal backer, disputes that claim. But Modesto-based J.S. West has another major humane certifier on its side.

Proposition 2, enacted by voters in 2008, mandates that food-animal enclosures allow freedom of movement. Egg producers have protested that the initiative leaves them on shaky legal ground because it doesn't specify what cage dimensions constitute compliance.

The company said it spent $3.2 million on a new barn near Livingston, outfitted with enclosures used widely in Europe. The barn measures nearly 48,000 square feet and houses 152,000 hens in 4-by-12 cages.

The Humane Society has said that no cage system on the market, including those installed by J.S. West, will satisfy the language of the initiative, which takes effect in 2015.

The enclosures are produced by Big Dutchman. They contain perches, scratching areas and spaces to lie down and spread wings. Curtains surround nesting boxes and a conveyor system carries away manure.

"We're addressing all the space requirements that Prop 2 talks about, as well as the true holistic elements that a bird requires," Jill Benson, vice president of J.S. West, said.

The certifier American Humane Association announced in June that the enclosures fit the group's humane-treatment standards. The organization said its decision followed "extensive scientific review of the behavior and welfare" of hens housed in the enclosures in Europe, where conventional cages are set to be banned in 2012.

But Jennifer Fearing, the Humane Society's state director, says the design will not satisfy Prop 2, which mandates that chickens have enough space to stretch and move freely.

The system "is not going to be compliant with California law," Fearing said. "We have contended that cage-free is the minimally compliant system.

"There could be something else out there" that would comply, Fearing said. "What J.S. West has built is not that system."

Benson said J.S. West wants to "further the discussion" on what would satisfy the new law.

"Prop 2 was written extremely vaguely," Benson said. "(Producers) need to hang their hats on a clear set of guidelines in order to approach their banks for financing."

David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for Merced County, said decisions have yet to be made on how the law will be enforced. State officials have suggested the job should fall to counties, but Robinson said his staff is not trained to inspect agricultural facilities.

"There really hasn't been a discussion on who will enforce it," he said.

Benson said J.S. West's new barn will contain six video cameras to further study the hens' behavior in the enclosures, an effort that American Humane is supporting. J.S. West and Big Dutchman plan to broadcast video streams on their own websites.

Benson said the investment will cause the company to raise its prices by 15 cents per dozen to cover higher costs. J.S. West hopes to soon begin separating eggs that emerge from the new barn, allowing them to be marketed as humane-certified. Certified eggs could fetch 25 cents per dozen above the company's current prices.

"At the end of the day it's about feeding our state, retaining our jobs here in California as well as tax revenue," Benson said. "I don't think consumers want to be buying eggs from out of state and out of the country."

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