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MNB reported yesterday that California voters will be making a decision in an interesting referendum next week having to do with animal rights. However the decision goes, experts say it will create a national precedent.

According to the Washington Post, “California voters will decide next month whether the state's farms must afford more living space to veal calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant sows. Under ballot measure Proposition 2, farmers would be prohibited from confining these animals in a way that does not let them turn around freely, lie down, stand up or fully extend their limbs. Cages and crates now commonly used to house them would be banned.”

The Post explains the two arguments this way: “Proponents say the regulations would improve food safety, protect the environment and end what they call the cruel and inhumane treatment animals suffer when confined in areas barely larger than their bodies. But opponents say the measure would cost California -- the nation's fifth-largest egg producer -- thousands of jobs, sharply increase production costs and ultimately destroy competition with out-of-state producers.”

My comment: As a city guy with almost animal husbandry experience – actually, I have no animal husbandry experience – I have a little trouble understanding why making animals a little more comfortable would “cost thousands of jobs, sharply increase production costs and ultimately destroy competition with out-of-state producers.” If you were to give these industries a reasonable amount of time to comply with the new law, if it were passed, then perhaps it could be worked out in a way that satisfies most of the players. (Okay, that’s not likely. But I can fantasize…)

Maybe it raises costs a little bit more, and I’ll grant you that higher costs can be a real issue at this particular moment in time. But can a little humane treatment for animals actually result in Armageddon for the California egg, poultry, and meat producing industries?

Got a bunch of emails on this one, most of them suggesting that I was either naïve or misinformed. Or both.

MNB user Ronald Fong, who also happens to be president of the California Grocers Association (CGA), wrote:

In response to your comments regarding California’s Proposition 2, passage of this controversial initiative WILL drive the egg industry out of California. Look past the proposition’s top line rhetoric and focus on what it really means for both egg producers and consumers.

Prop. 2 would establish unnecessary and costly hen housing requirements. Most egg producers in California say these costs are too great.

State and federal animal cruelty laws are already on the books. In addition, the egg industry has established the “United Egg Producers Certified” program that is based on scientific guidelines recommended by an independent panel of leading animal welfare and animal behavior experts.

Proponents draw heavily on consumer emotion. Their advertisements focus on veal calves and breeding pigs in gestation crates, despite the fact there’s little veal production in California and pig farmers have voluntarily phased out confining sows to breeding crates.

And because of the way in which it’s worded, Proposition 2 may even ban the production of “cage-free” eggs.

Every major newspaper in California including the Los Angeles Times, Bakersfield Californian and the San Francisco Chronicle opposes Prop 2.

For these and many more reasons the California Grocers Association Board of Directors voted to oppose Proposition 2. Not only would it destroy California’s egg industry, it would establish a standard for similar initiatives in states nationwide. How often is it said, “As California goes…

Another MNB user wrote:

Kevin, I don't have much animal-raising expertise either, but it's not rocket science to figure out that doubling the space requirement for laying hens would require double the number of chicken houses, which would require more land, higher energy costs (twice as many lamps and ventilators due to the doubled number of houses) and ultimately higher labor costs as a result of productivity decreases from the enlargement of the work area.

Given that chicken-raising, as opposed to chicken processing, is not a real high-margin business, these increased costs could easily lead to reductions in headcount at the bottom end of the wage scale.

So, if California implements a unilateral change, their processors would be at a cost disadvantage to producers in other states - more job losses and so on, until the businesses ultimately leave the state - which may be the desired outcome anyway...

However, another MNB user offered the opposing view:

The morality of a nation can be judged by how they treat their animals. We are not doing so well.

And another MNB user chimed in:

Amen...couldn't have said it better.

And, ditto on fair treatment of animals. I'm a meat eater and have always loved veal. When I found out what the "plastic pup tents" were at an area farm (and saw the cute calves heads poking out from their chained existence), it made me rethink veal. The nice fat veal chop in the case no longer holds the same allure it used to. Seems to me a bit more freedom is worth it.

KC's View: