Flying the coop?

Pub date May 20, 2008


GREEN CITY From inside the trailer-size office at Sunrise Farms, one can hear the incessant squawking of 160,000 chickens housed nearby. The Petaluma-based egg producer generates the vast majority of eggs sold in the Bay Area with its seven properties and 1 million hens, one of two large egg operations in a region that used to have thousands of smaller chicken farms.

On one wall of the office a framed aerial black-and-white photograph shows the same property as it appeared more than 70 years ago. The layout of buildings hasn’t changed much over time, still retaining the long, thin structures aligned side-by-side. But in the photograph, little white specks populate the space between buildings — they’re chickens, and all 10,000 were free to wander. Today the birds are kept indoors and, to save space and increase production, are typically confined in small cages. These "battery" cages are stacked in rows four cages high, allowing each bird 67 square inches of room — about the size of a large shoebox.

Although the egg industry says the cage systems are science-based and humane, animal welfare activists say they are cruel and restrict natural behaviors. In November, voters will decide whether to ban the cages in California, thanks to a six-month signature-gathering effort sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States along with other animal welfare groups. As hundreds of veterinarians, businesses, farmers, and politicians — including Assembly member Mark Leno and state senator Carole Migden — continue to endorse the measure, the California egg industry is rallying farmers from across the country against it. If voters approve the law, California’s egg farmers would be required to move the state’s 19 million caged birds into cage-free facilities by 2015.

Since 2002, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado have passed similar laws regarding the confinement of pregnant pigs and veal calves in crates — both included in the California measure — but California would be the first state to pass a law regarding the confinement of egg-laying hens. The pork and veal industries have begun voluntarily phasing out confinement practices nationally, and animal welfare groups hope for a similar response from the egg industry if the measure passes in California.

But some consumer groups and egg producers fear the cost of eggs could increase drastically as a result of the new laws. The industry is historically volatile, with prices rising and falling week to week due to disease outbreaks and fluctuating consumer demand. Recently, however, the industry has seen steady growth. The average American now buys around 260 eggs per year, an increase since the 1990s that has resulted in higher profits for the $3 billion-a-year industry.

Although the financial toll the measure would have on farmers and consumers is unclear, the Humane Society touts a study prepared for an industrywide meeting in 2006 as evidence that the cost to switch over to cage-free farming would be minimal. The report claims that the difference between constructing and operating a cage-free facility compared to a caged one amounts to less than one cent per egg. However, the work-up assumes land prices of $10,000 per acre — a fourth of the average land cost in Sonoma County. But even using the higher estimate, the difference is still only slightly more than a penny per egg.

Arnie Riebli, the managing owner of Sunrise Farms, says he disagrees with those figures and doesn’t understand how they were calculated. Indeed, he thinks the cost of cage-free production is closer to double that of caged production. Even so, he says that while initial costs are higher, he receives a higher profit margin on cage-free eggs because of their specialty pricing.

If required to raise only cage-free birds, Riebli says his business will lose its competitive edge to out-of-state producers. One-third of California’s eggs currently come from outside of the state, which means the delivery routes and trucks from the Midwest are established, which means flow could easily be increased. "Every other state is going to sit out there and ship more eggs in here," he says. "They’re not stopping it. They’re just moving it somewhere else."

Riebli’s says he is concerned with his hens’ welfare as much as ever, and has taken trips across the world to research the latest in hen-raising technology. But he stands by his methods. "I use myself as a judge to see what my animals will like," he says. "I go into the building just as I am. If I’m comfortable without a mask, without any protection, then the birds must be too."

The chickens closest to the office are considered cage-free. The 4,000 birds inside the building are fed an all-organic diet and, although quarters are still tight (slightly over a square foot is allotted for each), the birds can dust bathe, perch on posts, and spread their wings. Sunrise Farms reflects the entire industry, since only about 5 percent of its egg-laying hens are raised without cages. In most other buildings, birds are held in battery cages. Ten birds live in each four-foot metal cage.

The eggs are packed on site and distributed through NuCal Foods, the largest egg supplier in the western United States. NuCal also delivers eggs from Gemperle Enterprises, the company whose facility recently came under fire after animal rights activists released undercover footage of severe animal abuse at its farm. Although the farm now claims the video was staged, it showed heinous acts of cruelty, including stomping and throwing hens. More important, it showed the conditions of the hens living in battery cages. Many had excessive feather loss, abnormal growths, and infections.

Riebli says he wants to distance his farm from the cruel treatment shown in the video. Still, he admits that all laying hens are susceptible to cancers, infections, and feather loss, although not usually as severe as what was shown in the video. "There’s a disconnect to where people’s food comes from," Riebli says. "They think it comes from the back of the grocery store, but unfortunately it doesn’t. It has to come from somewhere."

The Riebli family has been in the Petaluma egg business for more than 100 years, and since 1960 his company has grown by joining with other egg producers. The farm survived the Depression, the bird-flu scare, many salmonella outbreaks, and even break-in attempts from animal rights activists. Now that iron bars guard the office windows, Riebli is no longer as worried about criminal attempts against his farm. His main concern these days is that the law, although aimed at protecting chickens, could put him out of business.

"Animals are not human," he says, furrowing his brow and raising his voice slightly. "They don’t have intellect. Chickens probably have brains the size of a pea."

Sara Shields, who holds a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis, is among the most vocal American scientists to oppose the use of battery cages. She notes that in Europe, where battery cages were banned in 1999, she’d be considered moderate. She recently released an extensive study comparing the welfare of hens in battery cages to those in cage-free systems. "I would like to see us raise the bar for the treatment of animals," she says. "There’s a limit to how high that bar can be set in cages. I don’t think cages have the potential to be humane."

But most American agricultural scientists disagree and say both systems can be operated humanely, though they grant that poorly-run versions of either type can be disastrous. To prevent mismanagement, United Egg Producers, a lobbying group that represents 85 percent of the country’s egg farms, decided to develop standards for caged production in 1999. They sought out UC Davis poultry scientist Joy Mench to lead a team of scientists in creating these welfare guidelines.

By analyzing the disease, injury, mortality, and productivity rates of birds kept in different systems and spaces, the group developed criteria that the industry subsequently adopted. Among these standards is the 67-square-inch minimum space requirement for each hen. These measures mostly focus on disease and mortality control as well as egg-laying productivity, but have less concern for behavioral welfare.

Although caged birds in modern systems sometimes have lower disease rates than cage-free birds, Shields says the potential for humane treatment in cage-free systems is much higher. Most scientists agree that hens in battery cages cannot engage in many of their natural behaviors, including wing-flapping, nest-building, perching, dust-bathing, scratching, and preening. And although disease control in cage-free systems is more difficult, Shields says, cage-free flocks can be maintained healthfully and successfully.

But Riebli has had problems with one of his younger cage-free flocks at Sunrise Farms. They became startled and piled on top of each other earlier this month, he says, suffocating 20 percent of the birds.

But Shields says this is highly unusual, and points toward newer, aviary-style cage-free systems as a solution for producers who encounter the problem. These methods divide the birds into smaller flocks within the same building, and rely on multiple levels to allow birds to perch and nest. Another potential issue, she says, is the lack of a perfectly-bred hen for cage-free production. After years of breeding hens to produce well in battery cages, breeders only recently have begun breeding for traits that benefit cage-free production. "The bird needs to be suited to the environment, and the environment also needs to be more suited to the birds," she says.

An aviary system costs more to set up than an empty cage-free building, but Shields dismisses these costs. "If we keep racing to the bottom in the name of cheap food, the eventual cost is going to be put on the animals," Shields says. "At some point we have to balance economic costs with moral and ethical considerations."

Over the past two-and-a-half years, a group of 15 politicians, scientists, farmers, and ranchers banded together to do just that. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report last month detailing many troubling issues with the country’s farm animal production. The group specifies that the California ballot measure is a great place to start.

More than 100 cows graze Bill Niman’s 1,000-acre Marin County ranch, but only a couple have ever successfully navigated down the cliffs from the pastures to the beaches. Niman’s home is less than a mile inland, and on clear days he can see across the bay to San Francisco and even Daly City. He founded Niman Ranch on this property in the early 1970s and quickly caused a stir by deciding not to feed antibiotics and hormones to his cows. At first his fellow ranchers didn’t take him seriously, but now nearly all beef producers feed their cattle hormone-free food. More than 30 years later, Niman is determined to use the credibility he has earned to help all farm animals gain better treatment.

Last year, at 63, he gave up his seat on Niman Ranch’s board of directors, effectively ending his involvement with the company he once ran. Now he volunteers with the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. "One of my missions in life is to change the way animals are treated and how food is produced in this country," he says.

As part of the commission’s research, Niman visited one of the nation’s largest caged production houses in Colorado. Despite the state-of-the-art automated system, Niman was not impressed. "It’s pretty hard to put a rosy picture of 1 million chickens living five birds to a cage with no room to move around or stretch their wings," he says. "If I ran the place, I’d have trouble sleeping at night."

Niman believes the public wants to see reform in the food production industry. He says that this measure, and any laws that improve animal welfare, will only expedite what would eventually come naturally due to consumer demand. "I’m not one to advocate more and more legisutf8g, but I also know what’s going on out there," he says. "Change is so critical — and coming — that the sooner that change can begin, and the more orderly and methodical that change can be, the better off everyone will be."

Niman is part of a food movement centered around the Bay Area that includes author and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, who also has expressed support for the measure. "The treatment [of hens] is important for reasons for morality, ethics, and sustainability," Pollan tells the Guardian, adding another ulterior motive for changing how hens are kept: "Eggs from hens that live outdoors on grass are a excellent product, even more nutritious and tasty." *