Approximately 305 million egg-laying hens live in the United States at any given time. Between 90 and 95 percent of these birds are packed into tiny, barren wire cages that are stacked in rows, one on top of the other. The egg industry’s trade association, United Egg Producers, only asks producers to give each bird 67 square inches of space—that is considerably smaller than the page on which this article appears in print.
Several states have tried to change this status quo, but no state has received more attention for its efforts than California. In 2008, 8.2 million Californians voted for “Prop 2”—a ballot proposition AWI supported—to give egg-laying hens space to perform a few basic natural behaviors: the freedom to turn around, lie down, and flap their wings without interference. (The successful ballot initiative gave similarly expanded freedom of movement to pregnant pigs and veal calves.) In 2010, California passed a law requiring anyone wishing to sell shelled eggs from outside of California to comply with Prop 2. Then, in 2013, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture issued a food safety rule (CCR 1350), unrelated to Prop 2, requiring specific cage size requirements for egg-laying hens—116 square inches per bird for cages containing nine or more hens.i All three of these laws went into effect on January 1, 2015.
There has been much confusion over what farmers and producers need to do to comply with the space requirements for Prop 2. Do they have to go “cage free” (the original sentiment behind the measure), get bigger cages for hens, or keep the same cages but put fewer birds in them? Currently, producers are using all three interpretations of the law. California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, the entity responsible for enforcing CCR 1350, has stated that it believes CCR 1350 meets the standards of Prop 2, but cannot state this definitively as it is not charged with administering Prop 2.
Meanwhile, there are several other states that have established new requirements for egg-laying hens. Michigan, for example, will require one square foot (144 square inches) of floor space for each egg-laying hen when its law goes into effect in 2020. Oregon and Washington will require 116 square inches of space per bird when their egg-laying hen laws take full effect.
While Michigan, Oregon, and Washington establish standards for egg-laying hens that may be stronger than California’s Prop 2, they all have significant drawbacks. Chief among them: all three states have extremely lengthy phase-in periods—10 years for Michigan and 15 years for both Oregon and Washington (with incremental steps that must be met along the way). And the Washington and Michigan laws only apply to egg-laying hens within their borders—not to all eggs sold within the state.
Giving birds more room to move is vital to their welfare, but it is not the only measurement. Providing enrichments—perches, scratching and nesting areas, and materials with which to dust bathe—also is essential to higher welfare for egg-laying hens, because such enrichments allow birds to perform some of their most basic natural behaviors. Washington is currently the only state that will require enrichments for egg-laying hens; the law states that hens must have access to nesting, scratching, and perching areas. However, this law does not fully go into effect until 2026. Oregon has a law similar to Washington’s, but it is less clear as to whether enrichments are required for birds. (According to conversations AWI has had with representatives from Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, however, new regulations will be written this year requiring enrichments for hens.)
Whereas these states have tried to make modest improvements for egg-laying hens, others have tried to codify the status quo. In 2009, Maine passed a resolution authorizing the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources to develop so-called “best management practices” for egg-laying hen facilities with more than 10,000 birds. The resolution followed an undercover investigation at the largest egg farm in New England, which captured images of workers swinging birds in circles by their necks to kill them, and birds with broken bones and open wounds. The commissioner subsequently developed standards that include minimum space requirements for hens: a mere 76 square inches of floor space per brown egg-laying hen and 67 square inches per white leghorn hen. While these standards are not written into law, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, “compliance is required and overseen by the State Veterinarian.”
Arizona also adopted rules for hen husbandry standards, but limited the rules to egg producers with at least 20,000 hens at each facility. The law preempts local attempts to set higher standards by specifying that hen-raising standards are a statewide issue and cities and towns cannot therefore adopt further regulations regarding the subject matter. In the year following the law’s enactment, the Arizona Department of Agriculture codified the United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks, 2008 Edition. This set of guidelines allows as little as 67 square inches of floor space per bird and does not provide enrichments for birds. All eggs sold in the state must come from hens raised under these standards, unless they come from facilities with fewer than 20,000 hens or facilities that raise their hens cage-free.
Over the next several years, more legal changes are to come with respect to egg-laying hens. Already this year, legislators in a few states are working to codify minimum space requirements for hens—some with even higher standards than California, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington. On the other end of the spectrum, some states are trying to stop any progress for animal welfare with “right to farm” laws (derisively referred to by animal welfare advocates as “right to harm” laws), some of which seek to amend state constitutions to bar local and state governments from passing animal welfare laws affecting farming practices.
While these battles continue, AWI will continue to push for better raising standards for egg-laying hens. For more information on laws effecting farm animals see www.awionline.org/content/farm-animal-legal-protections.