PD Editorial: No on Prop 12: Let consumers choose their eggs

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Proposition 12 on the Nov. 6 ballot may look familiar to voters.

The initiative, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, promises better conditions for certain farm animals. So did Proposition 2, another Humane Society-sponsored initiative.

Voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008, but they should think twice about Proposition 12.

To be clear, no rational person favors cruelty to animals, including farm animals. It is, in fact, illegal and, under some circumstances, a felony.

But we have several concerns with Proposition 12, which would phase out all cages for egg-laying hens and set minimum space requirements for breeding pigs and veal calves.

For starters, its predecessor, which required farmers to make major investments in new cages or find another livelihood, took effect barely 4½ years ago.

Moreover, Proposition 2 continues to be targeted by legal and congressional challenges.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the changes sought by the sponsors of Proposition 12 — at least with regard to hens — already are occurring, not because of any government mandate but because of evolving consumer preferences.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, Proposition 2 requires that breeding pigs, veal calves and egg-laying hens have enough room in their enclosures to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs.

California’s pork and veal industries are quite small, so the impact has predominantly been on egg farmers. California is the nation’s seventh-leading producer, with about 14.5 million hens laying about 5 billion eggs a year, mostly on family-owned farms. Two large producers are located here in Sonoma County.

Proposition 2 required egg farms to stop using small so-called battery cages by 2014. Many farms invested in larger colony cages, at a cost of millions of dollars, which in turn pushed up the retail cost of a dozen eggs. Many of those same farms are now planning costly new barns and other enclosures for cage-free farming.

State legislators followed Proposition 2 with a law requiring farms in other states to meet California standards if they want to sell their eggs here.

That law has been the subject of multiple legal challenges, including a pending lawsuit brought by 13 farm states that have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is trying to exempt other states from Proposition 2 through the farm bill now pending in Washington.

Proposition 12 also would require compliance by out-of-state farmers, likely triggering more political challenges and more lawsuits — with taxpayers picking up the tab to defend the law in court.

To what end? The market already is moving in the direction sought by the Humane Society, with a growing number of shoppers choosing cage-free and free-range eggs, despite the higher cost.

Many families still opt for less-expensive eggs laid by caged hens, but they won’t have that option for too much longer. Numerous retailers, including giants such as Target, Walmart and Whole Foods, have agreed with the Humane Society of the United States to sell only cage-free eggs by 2025. So have McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Nestle, Heinz and other restaurants and food service companies.

Proposition 12 would require egg farms to phase out cages three years earlier.

California voters took the lead in protecting egg-laying hens a decade ago. Farmers responded by investing in new cages to comply with the new law, and they are responding to consumer preferences and demands of their clients in the food service industry by increasing production of cage-free eggs. There’s no need for another new set of rules, or to have one deadline for retailers and an accelerated one for farmers.

The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Proposition 12.

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