Record high energy and grain prices, a relative over supply of meat, the credit market freeze and the beginning of what appears to be a worldwide recession, all took their toll on the balance sheets of broiler and turkey producers last year. But I believe there was another event that could have a more significant long-term impact. California voters passed Proposition 2 in November elections. How the poultry industry and the rest of animal agriculture respond to this electoral loss will have far-reaching effects on the future of animal production in the USA.
California's Proposition 2, the Standards for Confining Animals Initiative, prohibits specific farm animals from being confined in a way that prevents them from being able to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. The measure targeted housing systems used for veal calves and pregnant sows, as well as for caged laying hens. But since there is little production of veal in California and a relatively small pork sector, the bulk of the impact will be felt by table egg producers.
It is estimated that at present, only 5% of eggs sold in California come from cage-free layers. There is still some uncertainty as to what type of housing for layers will be deemed acceptable, since the language in the legislation is vague. But, some industry experts expect that when Proposition 2 takes effect in 2015, the caged-layer industry in California will go out of business.
The legislation does not restrict the sale of eggs from caged layers in California, just the production, so it is likely that lower-cost eggs from caged layers will be imported to California from other U.S. states and Mexico. California already imports around one third of its eggs, but it was still the country's eighth largest egg producing state in 2007.
In spite of a significant public relations effort by animal agriculture groups and numerous other interested groups, Proposition 2 garnered over 60% of the votes. It has been estimated that both sides spent a combined $15 million in this campaign. Most of the state's major newspapers expressed opposition to Proposition 2, including the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, Fresno Bee, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Napa Valley Register and San Francisco Chronicle.
"We are despondent that California voters didn't hear animal welfare experts' messages warning of higher rates of death in non-cage systems, increased rates of smothering, increased incidences of aggression and much more," said Kay Johnson Smith, executive vice president, Animal Agriculture Alliance. At the same time, the animal rights groups were celebrating. "The passage of Proposition 2 in the country's largest agricultural state marks a monumental victory for farm animals," said Gene Baur, president, Farm Sanctuary. "Today marks a significant change in the way we view and treat farm animals and falls closer in line with public sentiments and values of compassion. We look forward to seeing these confinement systems phased out nationwide."
This battle is not about confinement housing systems and their impact, whether positive or negative, on the welfare of farm animals. Animal rights groups aim for nothing less than the end of animal agriculture and the imposition of a vegan lifestyle in this country. These groups have adopted a patient incremental approach to achieving their objective.
Passage of Proposition 2 was a loss for animal agriculture, but it was just one battle in the war. What matters now is how the poultry industry responds. Will this serve as a call to action, or will the industry lay low until the next ballot initiative? The industry needs to work collectively to tackle this challenge, and it needs to present its case to consumers. Americans all need to eat, and a majority of American consumers like to eat meat. Let's make sure that these consumers understand where their birds come from and how they are raised, the poultry industry has nothing to be ashamed of. Animal rights groups are in this fight to win it, are we?