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Standing in a huge Petaluma warehouse with 135,000 chickens, Arnie Riebli pointed to the white leghorns standing in columns of nearby cages and asked, "Are these birds uncomfortable? I say, 'No.'"

That is the central question of Proposition 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot. The measure sharply divides farmers like Riebli, who say the proposed constitutional amendment would decimate the California egg industry, and animal supporters, who believe chicken cages are inhumane devices.

In suburban Sonoma County with its deep agricultural roots, the state initiative represents an election day battle between the producers of inexpensive food and mostly city-bred activists who believe that animal rights are being violated.

"We're closer to the animals. We see them in the fields. We see them on the farms," Hope Bohanec, the county's Prop. 2 volunteer coordinator, said of residents here. "We understand that they deserve basic humane treatment."

Supporters say they gathered 15,000 signatures countywide to place the initiative on the ballot -- three times their goal based on the county's population.

While most voters are still becoming familiar with Prop. 2, a Field poll last month found that respondents statewide favored the initiative by 63 percent to 24 percent.

Riebli, whose Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms produces 1 million eggs a day, is showing off his facilities of caged and cage-free birds to schoolteachers, editorial writers and others.

He said that both methods involve humane ways of producing eggs, but that eliminating cages would drive up costs. If the initiative passes, he argued, "the egg industry as you know it will be gone."

Riebli is leading a egg-producing revival in a region where Petaluma once called itself the Egg Capital of the World. County agriculture officials note that in an area with 11 egg producers, most concentrating on niche markets, production grew by 143 percent last year, a jump attributed to Riebli consolidating his operations from four counties to Sonoma only.

The initiative, which would take effect in 2015, prohibits farmers from confining egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant pigs in ways that prevent them from standing up, turning around or extending their limbs without touching the sides of an enclosure or another animal.

Hens make up about 19.5 million of the nearly 20 million animals that would be directly affected by the initiative.

While other states have enacted restrictions on veal and pig enclosures, California would be the first state to ban the chicken cages, said Jennifer Fearing, a spokeswoman for the "Yes" campaign and the chief economist for the Humane Society of the United States.

In the European Union, such cages will be banned in 2012, according to a University of California study.

The initiative's supporters include the Humane Society, the Center for Food Safety and the 5,000-member California Veterinary Medical Association.

Opponents include the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the state Farm Bureau Federation and several farm-related veterinary groups, including the American College of Poultry Veterinarians.

Those voters who get their idea of egg production mostly from Foghorn Leghorn cartoons would be astonished to see the real thing.

In an era of high-tech efficiency and fears of avian influenza, only a sliver of the nation's egg production occurs in the barnyard or the chicken coop. Nearly all egg-laying hens, both caged and cage-free, spend their lives inside large barns and warehouses. Bred for egg production, not meat, the hens typically live less than two years and are then disposed of.

About 95 percent of the state's egg-laying hens live in cages. A typical cage at one of Riebli's facilities measures 27 inches wide, 24 inches deep and 16 inches high. It normally holds eight chickens.

The "Yes" campaign Web site calls the cages among "the most cruel and inhumane forms of extreme confinement in the world of animal agribusiness."

"I can't think of any other animals that are confined to that limited space," said Jeff Smith, a Middletown veterinarian and the past president of the state veterinarian association. "It seems to fall below that minimum standard of what I expect we owe that animal."

But Nancy Reimers, a veterinarian and member of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, said the cages "are absolutely a humane system" that were improved over the past half century to keep the birds healthy.

A key health component for both the hens and the consumer is that the caged birds and eggs are separated from chicken manure, Reimers said, something that doesn't occur for cage-free and organic production.

She disputed the portrayal by the initiative's backers in regard to the movement of the caged hens. "They are able to stand up, turn around and flap their wing," Reimers said. "They may touch other chickens, but they can flap their wings."

Disagreement also runs high over what would happen to the state's egg production if Proposition 2 is approved.

A study by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center in Davis concluded that the initiative's passage would result in "the elimination of almost all of the California egg industry over a very few years."

The study estimated that cage-free production costs at least 20 percent more than that for cage-produced eggs. The initiative would shift production to out-of-state farms where no such ban exists.

But Fearing, the Humane Society economist, said similar warnings came before the banning of veal crates and nothing of the sort happened. Instead, once a few states had enacted bans, the national industry rejected the veal crates.

"We'll have sent a strong message to the egg industry that it's not acceptable for animals to be kept in tiny, cramped cages," Fearing said.

She also pointed to another study's estimate that cage-free eggs could be produced for only a penny more each than eggs from caged hens.

But cage-free egg farmer Steve Mahrt of Petaluma disputes that such a small difference exists in the production cost of the two methods.

And he took issue with the suggestion that the veal industry provides a good example of what might occur with egg production. Veal producers were able to stop using crates without a huge capital investment, Mahrt said, but a switch to cage-free eggs would require at least a five-fold expansion of warehouse space.

"It's not even apples and oranges," Mahrt said of the comparison. "It's apples and rocks."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale


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