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Tech California’s new ban on small cages for chickens, pigs, and calves could force the entire egg industry to go cage-free

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California just banned small cages for chickens, pigs, and calves — which means cage-free eggs will likely be the new normal across the country.

Cage free hens at an egg farm in San Diego County on July 29, 2008. play

Cage free hens at an egg farm in San Diego County on July 29, 2008.

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

  • More than 60% of California voters said yes to Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that will require farmers to give all their egg-laying hens, veal calves, and breeding pigs enough space to stretch their limbs.
  • The new rule is more specific than current California law, since it specifies exactly how much space each animal must have to itself.
  • The measure will also require any eggs, veal, or pork coming in to California from other states to abide by the same rules.

California chickens will soon all be getting more space. One square foot of it, to be exact.

On Tuesday, voters in California overwhelmingly approved Proposition 12, which will enact stricter rules on how much space farmers must give to egg-laying hens, veal calves, and breeding pigs. The idea is that all of those animals should have enough room to stretch out their wings, claws, and paws.

The measure has major ramifications for the rest of the country, because it also means that grocers in California won't be able to sell any meat or eggs that come from out of state and don't adhere to the new regulations. That means farms across the US that want to sell their wares in the nation's most populous state will be forced to comply with California's new rule.

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(Vadim Ghirda/AP)

California already had a law on the books about cruelty-free eggs: it says egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal must be given enough space "to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs." But that still allowed for some variations based on interpretation.

Now, under the new regulation, farmers have until the start of 2020 to provide each egg-laying hen at least one square foot of floor space. By 2022, all the state's hens need to have completely cage-free housing.

Animal rights activists like the Humane Society of the US, which sponsored Proposition 12, cheered the change.

"California voters have sent a loud and clear message that they reject cruel cage confinement in the meat and egg industries," Kitty Block, acting president and CEO of the Humane Society said in a statement. "Millions of veal calves, mother pigs and egg-laying hens will never know the misery of being locked in a tiny cage for the duration of their lives."

Egg producers around the country had already rallied in opposition to California's current hen-housing requirements. In April, 13 states took the battle to the Supreme Court. Iowa, the country's largest egg producer, even enacted a new law to protect farmers there who keep hens caged.

But big egg retailers like McDonalds, Costco, and Burger King had already started to respond to consumers' cage-free demands — McDonald's and Burger King have both pledged to source only cage-free eggs by 2025.

The battle over how we house farm animals comes as the US' egg appetite soars — American egg production rose 3% in 2017, with a total of 106 billion eggs produced last year. (The vitamin-rich yolks are no longer thought to raise cholesterol levels the way many people previously thought.)

Read More: 'Cage-free' and 'free range' eggs aren't necessarily cruelty-free

Converting to cage-free doesn't come free, though: it costs farmers about $40 per bird, according to Pew Stateline. Farmers say raising cage-free chickens can also be messier and require more work.

Cage-free eggs also cost more in stores. A study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in 2017 estimated that California's current law cut egg production in that state by more than a third. For consumers, egg prices were found to be between 9% and 33% more expensive than they would have been without the rule.

"I think it should be an issue of the person votes when they buy the eggs," Dennis Bowden, who converted his own chicken farm in Maine to a cage-free facility, told Pew Stateline. "Poor people can’t afford to buy eggs if they’re all cage-free."

Plus, cage-free doesn't always mean that the birds get to roam freely; some cage-free egg-layers still don't spend a single moment of their lives outside.

In addition to passing Proposition 12, Californians also voted in favor of nixing Daylight Saving Time and decided that the state should be able to spend mental-health funding to house homeless people with mental illnesses.

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