By the Friday morning after the election the dust from Proposition 2 had started to settle and the realities were becoming clearer. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and their numerous supporters are basking in the glow of an almost 65/35 win and are no doubt planning further initiatives to advance their agenda of displacing cage housing of hens for egg production.
Industry leaders approached for comment were obviously reluctant to be quoted directly although various organizations have issued predictable statements. Gene Gregory of the United Egg Producers was “disappointed.” He added, “From the very beginning we knew that we were fighting an uphill battle.”
Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association, was “encouraged to see voters in California take such an interest in animal welfare.” He cautioned that “veterinarians and animal welfare scientists must be involved in its implementation…to actually improve conditions for the animals they are intended to help.”
Kay Johnson of the industry-supported Animal Agricultural Alliance was “despondent that California voters didn’t hear animal welfare experts’ messages warning of the higher rates of death in non-cage systems.”
Achievements not enough
The lead organization opposing Proposition 2 outlined all that they had achieved from their expenditure of over $4 million through their spokesperson Matt Sampson. They categorized their activities including endorsements by 30 newspapers, lobbying efforts with the offices of the California Attorney General and Secretary of State, and cementing a strong coalition of business, agriculture, minorities and unions. Unfortunately, Californians for SAFE Food apparently failed to recognize that their efforts and strategy did not convince approximately 60% of voters. To blame the passage of Proposition 2 on “an emotionally manipulative, dishonest and often deceptive campaign” is disingenuous.
It is evident that the significant issue on which the opposition was based, namely the scientifically valid arguments for confinement housing of livestock, was not understood by the electorate.
The economic justifications, including 90,000 jobs, $950 million in revenue and $126 million in taxes was discounted in favor of an emotional response based on the perceptions and uninformed prejudices of urban voters.
The question now should not be, “Why did Proposition 2 pass with an overwhelming majority?” but “Where does the industry go from here?”
Prolonged battle not wise
As far as Californian producers are concerned, they feel rejected by their consumers and to some extent abandoned by the Midwest states which supply over 30% of shell eggs sold in California. Meetings, hurriedly convened, have elicited a number of reactions. First, what is the legal status of the proposition? Some are advocating court challenges. This would not be prudent.
A prolonged battle would be expensive and costs would have to be borne by both large producers with national affiliations in addition to the smaller independents and family farms which represent 50% of production in the state. The inevitable publicity from a prolonged case would be perceived by voters as a move to reverse the will of the people.
Participate in interpretation
The second approach is to intervene at the level of formulating regulations on which compliance and enforcement will be based. Presumably all stakeholders, including the scientific experts representing the industry, will have a seat at the table counteracting the intentions of the opponents of intensive animal production.
The responsible state agency, assumed to be the California Department of Agriculture, will have to balance political pressure from both sides, weigh valid scientific evidence and practical common sense in interpreting the wording of the proposition as adopted.
If there is no counter-proposition before the 2015 deadline and if the wording of the initiative is strictly observed, there will effectively be no caged hens in California in seven years.
Shell eggs from caged hens will continue to be introduced from states east of the continental divide to satisfy demand. The difference from the present will only be in volume. In reality there will be no perceptible deterioration in quality or safety given modern production, transport and distribution technology.
Will history repeat itself?
The United States has witnessed previous waves of restructuring in the poultry industry. The post-World War II movement of production southward from New England states and the demise of egg production in New Jersey, New York and Delaware are examples. These changes and the complete relocation of broiler production to the Southeast in the 1960s in response to economic and demographic factors have parallels in the current situation.
Egg industries in states which allow voter initiatives should be prepared, to either defend similar proposals to California Proposition 2 or introduce proactive, protective initiatives in advance of the activities of the HSUS and its affiliates. The overriding conclusion from the vote is that the coalition to oppose Proposition 2 spearheaded by Californians for Safe Food failed to convince the electorate of the validity of their claims. This reality should not be lost on producers in vulnerable states.
Consumer education is key
Communication and understanding of how the industry produces eggs in confined systems should be conveyed to prospective voters. Virtual farm visits should be available on Web sites, education of consumers on the nutritional value of eggs in relation to cost should be emphasized. Farm visits should be arranged for the media, legislators and groups influencing public opinion. The industry must convey the message that hens are distinct from companion species in order to defuse the misperceptions promoted and publicized by the HSUS and kindred organizations.
Attempting to scare or sway consumers with arguments relating to “safety” or predictions of an escalation in cost of product is a futile and ineffective approach and should not be repeated. Developing alliances with consumers and their education, a tactic successfully interdicted by the HSUS which blocked AEB funding, will be essential in counteracting future voter initiatives.
At the end of the day consumers must understand that HSUS actions are less directed to “improving” welfare than the complete elimination of all livestock production and adoption of a vegan agenda. The industry must continue the program of self-policing and advancement of welfare, adoption of new scientifically proven innovations and must actively engage opponents.
A vociferous and zealous minority must not be allowed to impact our accepted way of life or deprive us of the opportunity to select what we wish to consume.