Will 'free the chickens' crusade spread?

Freshly-laid eggs being collected for delivery to the local packing plant.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: According to the Department of Agriculture, there were 333 million egg-laying chickens in this country as of October 1. Almost 20 million of them here in California. Thanks to Proposition 2 on the California ballot last night -- which passed overwhelmingly -- those chickens and some other animals grown for food will have better, if not necessarily longer, lives.

Laws requiring better treatment for calves and sows has already passed in Florida and Arizona. Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports on what could be the start of a national campaign to phase out animal confinement practices on factory farms.


Sarah Gardner: Before this election, probably few Californians ever gave much thought to the hens that lay their morning eggs. That changed this year when the Humane Society and its supporters put Prop 2 on the state ballot.

Tape of Ellen DeGeneres: Animals raised for food are crammed into cages so small they can't move. That's not right. Good news is we can change it.

TV celeb Ellen DeGeneres was an outspoken Prop 2 supporter. The initiative essentially outlaws conventional egg production in California. That means housing hens in stacked wire enclosures, often eight to a cage. Prop 2 doesn't ban cages, per se, but demands enough space so hens can spread their wings and turn around. Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle says Californians sent the farm industry a message.

Wayne Pacelle: These factory farms where animals are treated like commodities or objects or things is no longer acceptable, and the industry's going to have to better align its practices with public sentiment.

Pacelle's group intends to take this campaign to other states. He believes the California victory may persuade national retailers to eventually go cage-free. Costco and Safeway are already moving in that direction. But critics today called the Prop 2 campaign "emotionally manipulative." And Mitch Head at United Egg Producers insists food costs will go up.

Mitch Head: We think that once it takes effect and people see that there are perhaps shortages of locally produced eggs or that egg prices go up dramatically in California, other states might be a lot more reluctant to go down this path.

The European Union already is. Janice Swanson, an animal welfare expert at Michigan State, says farmers there are trying everything from barn-like aviaries to bigger cages and . . .

Janice Swanson: There's still a lot of bugs to be worked out in these alternative systems.

Bugs like a higher mortality rate among cage-free birds. But farmers in California have some time to work out those kind of bugs. Prop 2 won't take effect until 2015.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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