Flying the coop?

Proposal to ban cages in chicken farms pits efficiency against humane treatment

GREEN CITY From inside the trailer-size office at Sunrise Farms, one can hear the incessant squawking of 160,000 chickens housed nearby. The Petaluma-based egg producer generates the vast majority of eggs sold in the Bay Area with its seven properties and 1 million hens, one of two large egg operations in a region that used to have thousands of smaller chicken farms.

On one wall of the office a framed aerial black-and-white photograph shows the same property as it appeared more than 70 years ago. The layout of buildings hasn't changed much over time, still retaining the long, thin structures aligned side-by-side. But in the photograph, little white specks populate the space between buildings — they're chickens, and all 10,000 were free to wander. Today the birds are kept indoors and, to save space and increase production, are typically confined in small cages. These "battery" cages are stacked in rows four cages high, allowing each bird 67 square inches of room — about the size of a large shoebox.

Although the egg industry says the cage systems are science-based and humane, animal welfare activists say they are cruel and restrict natural behaviors. In November, voters will decide whether to ban the cages in California, thanks to a six-month signature-gathering effort sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States along with other animal welfare groups. As hundreds of veterinarians, businesses, farmers, and politicians — including Assembly member Mark Leno and state senator Carole Migden — continue to endorse the measure, the California egg industry is rallying farmers from across the country against it. If voters approve the law, California's egg farmers would be required to move the state's 19 million caged birds into cage-free facilities by 2015.

Since 2002, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado have passed similar laws regarding the confinement of pregnant pigs and veal calves in crates — both included in the California measure — but California would be the first state to pass a law regarding the confinement of egg-laying hens. The pork and veal industries have begun voluntarily phasing out confinement practices nationally, and animal welfare groups hope for a similar response from the egg industry if the measure passes in California.

But some consumer groups and egg producers fear the cost of eggs could increase drastically as a result of the new laws. The industry is historically volatile, with prices rising and falling week to week due to disease outbreaks and fluctuating consumer demand. Recently, however, the industry has seen steady growth. The average American now buys around 260 eggs per year, an increase since the 1990s that has resulted in higher profits for the $3 billion-a-year industry.

Although the financial toll the measure would have on farmers and consumers is unclear, the Humane Society touts a study prepared for an industrywide meeting in 2006 as evidence that the cost to switch over to cage-free farming would be minimal. The report claims that the difference between constructing and operating a cage-free facility compared to a caged one amounts to less than one cent per egg. However, the work-up assumes land prices of $10,000 per acre — a fourth of the average land cost in Sonoma County. But even using the higher estimate, the difference is still only slightly more than a penny per egg.

Arnie Riebli, the managing owner of Sunrise Farms, says he disagrees with those figures and doesn't understand how they were calculated. Indeed, he thinks the cost of cage-free production is closer to double that of caged production. Even so, he says that while initial costs are higher, he receives a higher profit margin on cage-free eggs because of their specialty pricing.

If required to raise only cage-free birds, Riebli says his business will lose its competitive edge to out-of-state producers.

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