Today, Washingtonians for Humane Farms, a coalition led by The HSUS and Farm Sanctuary, filed a proposed initiative petition in Washington state to halt the use of battery cage confinement in egg production. The measure, which would take effect in 2018, would also stipulate that eggs sold in the state must meet that same standard once it goes into effect.
For three years, we met with egg producers in the Northwest to try to hatch a compromise. But the state's egg producers, who confine about 6 million birds, could not get to a place where they supported a serious-minded animal welfare reform in egg production. This initiative is the outcome of those failed discussions.
In 2008, HSUS and a large coalition of groups passed Proposition 2 in California to phase out the cage confinement of laying hens. In Ohio, we filed a similar petition, but eventually reached agreement with agriculture groups and we together supported a broad eight-point animal welfare agenda in the state. We are still in the midst of seeing those provisions adopted, but I remain hopeful that we'll get there in the Buckeye state.
We are generally reluctant to proceed with ballot initiatives, and prefer negotiated agreements, as we achieved not too long ago with agricultural leaders in Michigan. But when talks fail, we are left without other options. There is a major moral issue at stake here. It is cruel and inhumane to cram and crowd together for life laying hens in small cages. The birds are so tightly packed that they are unable to move much at all and entirely unable to nest, dust-bathe or perch. It is a life of privation and frustration.
Perhaps the key point is, there is a commercially viable alternative: cage-free production. Many egg producers maintain cage flocks and cage-free flocks, so they know they can raise animals without keeping them locked in tiny cages. With so many retailers, such as Burger King, Safeway and others increasing their share of cage-free egg purchases, or going entirely cage-free, like Whole Foods, it's clear that this is the trajectory of this industry. A stubborn refusal to change old and inhumane ways is not going to help the industry. All industries must adapt and innovate with changing times and attitudes, and the writing has been on the wall for a long time with this industry.
Environmental, public health and animal cruelty violations in Washington battery cage operations date back more than a decade. In 1999, Amberson Farms was fined by the state's Department of Ecology for discharging Salmonella-polluted runoff into a salmon-bearing tributary of Lake Stevens while plaguing the neighboring community with swarms of flies and a stench that affected nearby schoolchildren. Fecal bacteria levels in the afflicted waterway were 15 times the state's contamination limit, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to threaten the egg factory with penalties of up to $27,500 a day. A cruelty complaint led sheriff's deputies to the ghoulish discovery of thousands of hens dead or dying of starvation in a rat-infested shed with inoperable feeding and watering systems. The owner pleaded guilty to animal cruelty, yet paid only a $500 fine.
Though Amberson Farms is now gone, the problems associated with battery cage operations continue. At one massive cage facility designed to hold 1.8 million birds, Washington State University researchers found: "The fly population was rated 5 on a scale of 1 to 5...A score of 5 reflected a fly population so high that the workers could not talk to each other for fear of flies getting into their mouths."
We have fewer than six months to gather more than 300,000 signatures of Washington voters. If you are a Washington resident and want to help, please sign up on our site. We'll need thousands of volunteers on the ground to make this work. And for the sake of the 6 million animals we're seeking to help, we must make it work.
This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.