Monday, January 5, 2015

California eggs - what price animal welfare?

Only about 2% of the population of this nation are farmers, and the other 98% typically have very little to do with how their food is produced; be it animal or vegetable.  Their experience with food is to find it neatly wrapped on the shelves and in the display cases of their local store, perfect, glistening, lovely.  

Food in America transitioned from a protected industry in the first half of the 20th century, where the government managed the total crops planted by paying farmers not to plant - making sure that there wasn't an oversupply - to one where farmers were told to plant "fencerow to fencerow" and to "get big or get out!", famously by Earl Butz, the secretary of Agriculture in the early 50s.  

Most of the people who are reading this have only experienced the commodity farm economy and rush to the bottom in terms of prices and production, and while there's more interest in the last 20 or 30 years in local food, the local food market is very small even today - a few percentage points at best.  for 98% of the American public, you make your food choices primarily on price, and only decide on quality if the price is comparable.  Quality is a tiebreaker, but price is the primary choice.  

Every now and then, some practice that farmers have adopted to meet the ever-present demand for larger quantities and lower prices becomes public, and the 98% notices, and now and then decides that the practice is something they would rather not support, and if the reaction is strong enough, it becomes an initiative or a law, and is imposed on farmers.  

This happened in the state of California.  In 2008 an initiative was put in front of the people that talked about farming practices.  Initially titled "Prevention of farm cruelty act", it was retitled "standards for confining farm animals" and put in front of the people. 

And the people voted.  63% of them decided that adds a chapter to the california health and safety code, specifically:  

The proposition adds a chapter to Division 20 of the California Health and Safety Code to prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. The measure deals with three types of confinement: veal crates, battery cages, and sow gestation crates.

The definitions of how much space must be allowed each animal is vague -- it'll probably take some court cases to flesh out exactly how many square inches a laying hen gets, or a pregnant pig, or a calf destined to be veal, but the writing is on the wall, and 7 years later, the law is in force.  

Chickens are the most-affected animal, in terms of number.  A typical egg production farm houses tens of thousands of birds, and a large farm might have more than a half-million birds.  California voters extended the law outside of the state -- you can't import eggs from somewhere else and sell them in California unless they're produced in facilities that at least arguably meet the standards that they enacted.  So if you want an egg in California, the way its produced has now officially changed.  

With battery egg barns, where the chickens are kept in cages in tiers, some farms met the new rules by reducing the number of chickens in the cage.  Some redesigned their facilities and cages completely.  Some went to "free range" barns, where the chickens are on the floor of the barn, and some just decided to get out of the egg business.    

Egg prices have gone up a reported 35% to 70%, and consumers are now seeing the other side of the equation -- farmers have worked tirelessly to provide you with the lowest cost food in the world, as a percentage of income, and you, the consumer have said in california that you want us to concentrate on welfare.  

Ok -- we're right there with you, 98%.   We have now made chickens and veal calve and pregnant pigs lives better.  Will you consider paying a bit more to solve some other issues, too?  

I wonder what issue will next catch the publics attention -- and whether they'll be willing to foot the bill for that, too?  Farmworkers wages or rights?  Child labor?  Pesticide use in countries that we import food from -- like china?  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope that all of those issues become prominent in the mind of the public. Eventually the market will adjust.