Flying the coop? - Page 2

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

One-third of California's eggs currently come from outside of the state, which means the delivery routes and trucks from the Midwest are established, which means flow could easily be increased. "Every other state is going to sit out there and ship more eggs in here," he says. "They're not stopping it. They're just moving it somewhere else."

Riebli's says he is concerned with his hens' welfare as much as ever, and has taken trips across the world to research the latest in hen-raising technology. But he stands by his methods. "I use myself as a judge to see what my animals will like," he says. "I go into the building just as I am. If I'm comfortable without a mask, without any protection, then the birds must be too."

The chickens closest to the office are considered cage-free. The 4,000 birds inside the building are fed an all-organic diet and, although quarters are still tight (slightly over a square foot is allotted for each), the birds can dust bathe, perch on posts, and spread their wings. Sunrise Farms reflects the entire industry, since only about 5 percent of its egg-laying hens are raised without cages. In most other buildings, birds are held in battery cages. Ten birds live in each four-foot metal cage.

The eggs are packed on site and distributed through NuCal Foods, the largest egg supplier in the western United States. NuCal also delivers eggs from Gemperle Enterprises, the company whose facility recently came under fire after animal rights activists released undercover footage of severe animal abuse at its farm. Although the farm now claims the video was staged, it showed heinous acts of cruelty, including stomping and throwing hens. More important, it showed the conditions of the hens living in battery cages. Many had excessive feather loss, abnormal growths, and infections.

Riebli says he wants to distance his farm from the cruel treatment shown in the video. Still, he admits that all laying hens are susceptible to cancers, infections, and feather loss, although not usually as severe as what was shown in the video. "There's a disconnect to where people's food comes from," Riebli says. "They think it comes from the back of the grocery store, but unfortunately it doesn't. It has to come from somewhere."

The Riebli family has been in the Petaluma egg business for more than 100 years, and since 1960 his company has grown by joining with other egg producers. The farm survived the Depression, the bird-flu scare, many salmonella outbreaks, and even break-in attempts from animal rights activists. Now that iron bars guard the office windows, Riebli is no longer as worried about criminal attempts against his farm. His main concern these days is that the law, although aimed at protecting chickens, could put him out of business.

"Animals are not human," he says, furrowing his brow and raising his voice slightly. "They don't have intellect. Chickens probably have brains the size of a pea."

Sara Shields, who holds a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis, is among the most vocal American scientists to oppose the use of battery cages. She notes that in Europe, where battery cages were banned in 1999, she'd be considered moderate. She recently released an extensive study comparing the welfare of hens in battery cages to those in cage-free systems. "I would like to see us raise the bar for the treatment of animals," she says. "There's a limit to how high that bar can be set in cages. I don't think cages have the potential to be humane."

But most American agricultural scientists disagree and say both systems can be operated humanely, though they grant that poorly-run versions of either type can be disastrous.

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