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February 18, 2011

Thinking Outside the Cage in Washington

On Wednesday night, I did a “telephone town hall” with several thousand HSUS members in Washington state. All of the “attendees” who asked questions on the line were excited about my announcement that within days, Washingtonians for Humane Farms would be hitting the street to launch the signature-gathering phase of a new statewide initiative petition to phase out the confinement of laying hens in battery cages and to stipulate that all shell eggs sold there would also need to meet that modest standard. Humane advocates had been in discussions for nearly three years with the biggest egg producers in Washington, and also in Oregon, about finding a compromise, but they haven’t been able to see their way to a cage-free future.

At some level, I understand that certain egg producers cling to what they know and what’s been status quo for them. That’s a natural instinct, and it may seem like the safe business move. But it’s important for them to understand that they operate within a dynamic economy, and the values of Americans are changing on the question of animal welfare.

Battery cage hens
Farm Sanctuary
Hens confined in a battery cage in Washington.

Factory farming practices are no longer out of view, and people are rightly concerned by what they’re seeing. More and more consumers are recognizing that battery-cage eggs are a product of cruelty, and that’s not a good long-term outcome for these businesses.

It won’t be long before producers of eggs from hens in intensive confinement are left behind, with their capital and infrastructure and intellectual investments caught up in a production system that is inherently harmful to the well-being of birds.

The world is changing when it comes to animal welfare. Voters are decidedly in favor of more humane production practices, as evinced by the lopsided vote on Prop 2 in California a little more than two years ago. Michigan producers saw this trend, and they negotiated a long-term phase out of cage systems in order to avoid a similar ballot measure. Ohio agricultural leaders, too, agreed to work with us to place a moratorium on new battery cage facilities and phase out confinement of other farm animals. More retailers are committing every day to increase their share of eggs they purchase from cage-free producers. And so much of this behavior is driven by the fact that there is an alternative: cage-free production works, it is only slightly more expensive than cage production, and it is demonstrably better for the birds and for food safety.

Consumers are still going to buy eggs, so that means that these producers are still going to be able to sell their product. But a cage-free egg is a product of a system that does not cause such privation and misery for the birds.

The right business strategy for egg producers in the Northwest, and also around the nation, is to start building infrastructure for the new, humane economy. If instead the industry resists that and chooses to put tens of millions into political campaigns to forestall reform, its leaders are not only squandering capital, but their credibility. And they are setting themselves up for long-term failure, carrying a basket of eggs to market with no consumers who will want that product in five or 10 years.

It’s time to move forward, recognizing that consumer sensibilities and animal welfare do matter, and that old ways of doing business must change. Change and innovation are the watchwords of the American economy, and no business is immune from evolving with the times and adapting its practices to match the values of American consumers.

To get involved in support of the Washington ballot measure, go to www.YesOn1130.com.

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