Flawed ballot measure is coming home to roost

Chickens huddle in cages at an egg processing plant in Atwater before the 2008 passage of Proposition 2, which voters were told would set standards for housing chickens and other farm animals.
Chickens huddle in cages at an egg processing plant in Atwater before the 2008 passage of Proposition 2, which voters were told would set standards for housing chickens and other farm animals. Associated Press file

At this moment, millions of egg-laying hens are locked in factory cages throughout California. But wait: With scientific data pointing out health concerns for consumers, and public outrage over cruel conditions for hens, didn’t voters overwhelmingly enact a ballot measure six years ago that outlawed those cages?

No. They just thought they did.

The measure was called Proposition 2. Its sponsors promised voters that it would ban all egg industry cages statewide by Jan. 1. Not merely increase their size, but ban them.

The inescapable and heartbreaking reality is that had Proposition 2 actually contained what backers claimed, California would be cage-free at this very moment.

Instead, the state’s egg industry is investing in new cages, as well as modifying old ones. This obscene reversal of voter intent was made possible by the determined negligence of Proposition 2’s sponsor, the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society was repeatedly warned by the Humane Farming Association and many other animal advocates that the continued use of cages would be the legacy of Proposition 2 unless its fatally flawed language was corrected.

At the time, there was still ample opportunity to make clear in the initiative itself that cages would be prohibited. At the very least, Proposition 2 needed to specify exactly how much space would be required per hen. Sadly, all those warnings were ignored as backers marched ahead with a hopelessly vague and utterly unenforceable measure.

Now, six years later, the chickens have come home to roost. And, unsurprisingly, they’re being put in cages.

State regulations provide only 116 square inches per hen – roughly the size of a sheet of legal paper. This is exactly the kind of intensive confinement voters were told Proposition 2 would outlaw. This cage space allotment does not come from Proposition 2, but rather from separate regulations written by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The department has been explicit in stating that it is not enforcing Proposition 2. The same goes for local law enforcement, which is laughing off the measure entirely.

Worse still, in the years since Proposition 2’s passage, the Humane Society has flip-flopped on the issue of cages. It even joined with the egg industry’s leading trade association, United Egg Producers, in pushing for federal legislation that would preempt state laws and, you guessed it, establish modified cages as a national standard.

To distract from this stunning failure to deliver on its promises, the Humane Society now claims that the $10 million spent on the campaign was still worth it because Proposition 2 got rid of “veal crates.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not one single veal calf is, or ever was, affected by Proposition 2. In fact, there haven’t been any veal crates in California since the 1990s. Inserting a reference to veal calves in the measure was done simply to gain votes and to achieve a symbolic, albeit empty, victory.

There are, however, still many other calves kept in crates so small that they can’t turn around. They are dairy calves known as replacement heifers. Why is that still allowed? Because, despite the objections of many animal advocates at the time, those calves were excluded from the ballot measure.

In other words, Proposition 2 sought to ban veal crates that didn’t exist and had not existed for years, while explicitly allowing the use of crates that did exist, and which still do.

After years of waiting for its implementation, Proposition 2 is finally being recognized, and discarded, for what it is – an empty vessel of false promises, wasted resources and squandered opportunity.

California has long led the way in recognizing the need for better animal protection laws and for enacting them through the direct democracy of our initiative process. In the case of Proposition 2, voters were deceived and the process was misused. A fix is long overdue.

Bradley Miller is national director of the Humane Farming Association, a San Rafael-based group that campaigns against animal cruelty and operates the nation’s largest farm animal sanctuary.