Friday, November 2, 2012
An animal welfare proposition passed in 2008 is two years from taking effect. But California chicken farmers still don't know how to follow it.
SAN DIEGO There are about 25,000 chicken at Frank Hilliker's farm in Lakeside, where about 16,000 eggs are produced every day. The birds are kept in confined quarters where the laid eggs roll down a runway for easy harvest.
This is the kind of operation that was targeted by Proposition 2. And Hilliker will have to make some changes to comply with the law. The problem is, he doesn’t know what changes to make.
“I wish I knew," he said. "There’s no regulations. Proposition 2 said just give the chickens a little more room.”
As most people look forward to this year’s election, chicken farmers in San Diego County and around California are wondering about a proposition passed four years ago, which will fundamentally change the way they do business.
But Hilliker and others in the industry don't know how much more room their chickens are supposed to have. Eric Larson is executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.
“Farmers literally don’t know what to do," said Larson. "Prop 2, if people remember it, says this chicken needs to spread its wings, turn around and do naturally occurring practices. Scratch. Sit on a roost. But it’s not quantified at all.”
Proposition 2 was overwhelmingly approved by California voters, with support from animal welfare groups, who argued keeping chickens in such crowded cages was inhumane. What’s missing from the proposition is any suggestion of how many square feet or square inches a chicken needs to live in.
California chicken farmers have until January 2015 to comply with Proposition 2. Hilliker said making his farm cage-free would boost labor costs dramatically. And it makes no sense to spend up to a $1 million for a new caging system.
“Until I can get some guidelines to know what I can do, what it’s going to cost me and what my return on investment is going to be, I can’t make those decisions,” said Hilliker.
There has been some movement on the federal level. California Senator Dianne Feinstein is backing a bill that would set minimum guidelines for commercial chicken cages nationwide. This would essentially even the playing field inside and outside California. But there’s no telling whether that will pass.
Meanwhile, Larson’s best advice for San Diego chicken farmers facing the requirements of Proposition 2 is to do nothing for the time being.
"Because why would you take a big risk, make this big investment, put in all these new cages, and they don’t meet somebody’s standard,” said Larson.