04/08/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Making the World a Better Place for Chickens (or Maybe Not So Much)

Let me jump to and answer the obvious flack I may receive for this post: my agenda here is not to try and convince anyone what to eat and what not to eat. This is not an argument for or even in defense of a vegetarian or vegan diet. This is, instead, a commentary on a law considered by some to be radical, a law which is soon to take effect, and the hoopla both in support of and opposition to that law.

California voters passed a ballot measure in 2008 which requires more space for the chickens on farms in our State who lay the eggs sold in our markets. Some 5+ percent of the eggs sold in the U.S. come from these farms. The State legislature expanded the law to require the same standards for the hens laying the eggs also imported into California. That then led to similar legislation proposed in other States and eventually to a proposed change to Federal law. That proposed national standard was recently dropped, like a hot egg, by Congress. However there are six states (Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri) who have filed suit against California alleging the law violates Federal commerce regulations.

The concept was simple and, I believe, both reasonable and good: that is, these birds, typically kept alive for about 2 years, ought to have enough space to be able to move around more freely with room to stand up, sit down, and fully extend wings.

The actual standard, now set to take effect in California January 1 of next year, has reportedly cost the farm industry millions of dollars as they get ready for it. That's the cost of transitioning to what are called "colony cages," a cost will likely translate into another penny per egg at the market.

Colony cages house about 60 hens together. Old style battery cages, both those that will be illegal in California in less than a year and those that will remain in place at most of the nation's egg-producers, allow each bird 67 square inches. The new colony cages -- much applauded in some circles, deeply opposed in others, the motivation for consideration of Congressional action and now a six state gang-up in court against California -- will almost double that to 116 square inches. But let's look at what that really means...

67 square inches (old law, old cages, old "inhumane" standard) is a space roughly 8 inches square (8 x 8 = 64).

116 square inches (new law, new cages, radical new "humane" standard) is a space under 11 inches square (11 x 11 = 121).

You can easily visualize both 8 inches and 11 inches, since that sheet of paper your computer's printer spits out is 8 and a half inches by 11 inches.

So the short side of that printer paper is the dimension of each of the four sides of a square which defines the amount of space allowed each chicken in the old "inhumane" cages. The long side of that printer paper is the dimension of each of the four sides of the square that defines the amount of space allowed for each chicken in the new, humane, radical cage.


It's your choice, as it should be, whether or not to eat eggs. Or chicken. Or beef, Spam, tofu, broccoli, free range carrots, organically raised and lovingly produced local food items or produce picked sometime in the last century and housed in a warehouse for decades before it hits your plate and palette.

That is all your choice to make. It should be. I just think we should understand what those choices really are.