If you’re a chicken, you could do worse than to live in one of Frank Hilliker’s cage-free hen houses.
“I have chicken Disneyland,” Hilliker said.
There are chicken toys hanging from the ceiling of his barns in Lakeside, California, for the hens to peck, and the birds are fed up to eight times a day.
It might seem like Hilliker has gone too far when it comes to poultry entertainment, but it’s really just a business decision. Keeping chickens distracted keeps them from hurting each other and is a key element toward moving toward a cage-free operation.
Depending on the outcome of a ballot proposition Tuesday, many more California egg farms could be joining him in junking their cages, a move that could change the way consumers buy and eat animals across the nation.
Proposition 12 would mandate that egg-laying chickens no longer be caged after 2022. It would also require more space for veal calves and pregnant pigs. Such laws could make life cushier for farm animals, while complicating operations for the poultry industry and likely raising costs for consumers.
If passed, the ballot measure “is certainly going to be the new bar when it comes to farm-animal protection,” said Josh Balk, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the U.S., which is backing the proposition. “Proposition 12 updates California law that veal, pork and eggs sold in the state don’t come from farm animals confined in cruel cages.”
The proposal is also endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Sierra Club, the California Democratic Party, the United Farm Workers, and the Center for Food Safety. Proponents say that it will bolster family farms and will help prevent diseases, like salmonella, that can be spread from animals confined in small spaces. It’s also in keeping with a movement among businesses. Walmart, for instance, said two years ago that it will transition to selling cage-free eggs by 2025.
The proposition is a follow-up to another animal rights ballot measure that passed handily a decade ago in California that required caged chickens to have enough space to stand up and turn around.
Advocates and critics alike agree the latest animal rights effort will lead to higher food prices, but opponents say the benefits are dubious. An impartial review by the state Legislative Analyst said it will result in higher costs as farmers pass down to consumers the expense of converting their barns and if shortages arise as some can’t meet the deadline.
Just how much prices will go up is in dispute. Balk said it likely will amount to about a penny an egg. Agriculture economist Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the measure said it could add 50 cents to $1 to a carton of eggs. Sumner noted, however, there are a lot of variables when it comes to retail pricing that causes prices to fluctuate.
Cage-free eggs, where available, already command a small premium over conventionally grown ones. “It’s like buying organic,” Sumner said.
Then there is the issue of how much it will improve animals’ lives and food safety.
Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, a trade group opposing the measure, said the proposition is detrimental to food safety because uncaged chickens walk around in excrement on barn floors, making them more susceptible to parasites like roundworms.
There’s also the problem of chicken homicide, or the pecking order, the reason that Hilliker tries to make sure his chickens have toys to keep them occupied. To comply with the California proposition a decade ago, many farmers moved chickens from single cages into cages with a few others so they could more freely move around. But that resulted in deaths, because under poultry social organization, weaker birds are often pecked to death by more dominant ones. While small groups of birds are better than big ones when it comes to maintaining peace, chickens allowed to interact with one another will still kill each other, Klippen said.
Other critics say the cage ban doesn’t go far enough. Animal rights group PETA opposes the ballot measure, calling egg production inherently cruel. Proposition 12 only “codifies the cruelty,” said PETA spokesman Ben Williamson.
Egg farmer Hilliker is skeptical about the proposition. As a smaller producer – he has about 35,000 birds compared to millions on big farms – he said the 2022 deadline to banish cages would put him in a bind to complete the conversion of his hen houses.
Under the 2008 ballot measure, Hilliker and other chicken farmers didn’t have to start taking cages out of their barns, but he said he could see that it would be the next step, so he did it on his own. He is close to completing the renovation of the third of his five hen houses at his ranch in rural San Diego County.
The conversion “is costing me an arm and leg” – nearly $250,000 a barn, he said. “I don’t have the resources the big guys have,” and it can be hard to pass through the higher costs to many lower-income customers “who just want cheap.”
He said it isn’t entirely clear that his chickens are better off. Keeping them caged indoors protects them from disease, predators and each other.
“Their brain is the size of a marble. Most of their behavior is instinctive,” he said. Now free to roam indoors, they do more of the things that normally chickens do, like scratch and cluck a lot.
He knows one thing, however, about chickens in a cage-free barn.
“They ‘sing’ more than in a caged house,” he said, referring to all the sounds a chicken makes.
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