This is the last of our three-part series discussing the battle between “specialty eggs” or the cage-free and free-range eggs and the “conventional eggs” or the eggs from hens confined in battery cages.
Despite some recent, isolated reforms, severe abuses throughout the industry remain commonplace, even as a full ban on battery cages for egg-laying hens took effect in the European Union in 2012. The Humane Society reports that “the vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages.”
“There is no more tortured farm animal than a hen in a cage,” said Matthew O’Hayer, the founder of Vital Farms, a producer of certified humane, pasture-raised eggs. “If you visit a caged operation, there’s a chance you’ll never eat another egg in your life.”
In 2008, California voters approved the nation’s first law specifically reforming conditions for hens in the egg industry. The ballot initiative, Proposition 2, passed in a landslide, and it prohibited the state’s egg producers from confining hens in enclosures too small to allow them to turn around, stand up, lie down, and stretch their limbs. The initiative did the same for pregnant sows and veal calves.
Before the measure went into effect in 2015, egg-laying hens in California were typically crammed into battery cages exactly like the ones Carlson worked with in Iowa. The new standards provided a modicum of relief to millions of California hens.
The expenses required to comply with the new regulations, however, put the state’s egg farmers at a competitive disadvantage with out-of-state producers that sold their eggs in California stores. So the following year, to level the playing field, the California legislature adopted a new law that extended those standards to all eggs sold in the state, regardless of whether they were laid in a California facility or shipped from another state. Together, the ballot initiative and its successor bill constituted the codification of a new consumer awareness of the conditions that prevail in industrial egg production, and a new public willingness to compel producers to adopt more humane practices.
Since Prop 2’s passage, elected officials in Iowa and other egg-producing states have been vigorously fighting to undercut those laws in order to preserve access to California’s massive consumer market for their own egg producers — without requiring them to invest in better conditions for their hens. In 2013, Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King proposed an amendment to the federal Farm Bill that would have prevented any state from imposing standards on the production of agricultural goods created in another state — a measure explicitly aimed at nullifying the standards set by California’s Prop 2. The amendment failed.
In 2016, Iowa’s governor, along with the attorneys general of five other states, sued California’s then-State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Humane Society, seeking to block enforcement of Prop 2. The suit was dismissed at the district court level and on appeal, and the Supreme Court declined to hear it.
These successes have spurred advocates for ending animal cruelty to propose legislation for even more humane conditions. California’s legislators are now proposing to expand Prop 2’s minimum cage size yet further, and activists are pushing a new California ballot initiative that would require the state’s entire industry to go cage-free.
As the egg industry failed in its effort to undermine the voters’ will in California, the expanding national market for at least marginally more ethical eggs prompted 100 grocery store chains and dozens of chain restaurants and food manufacturers — Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Walmart among them — to pledge to abandon caged eggs over the next decade. This is an important development because these outlets collectively comprise 70 percent of consumer demand in the United States.
Caged egg producers and their political allies, running short on options to stem the contraction of the market for caged eggs, are now resorting to extreme measures, including the outright abandonment of the free-market principles they once heralded as sacrosanct. In Iowa, the strategy of these corporations now rests on overriding the demands of the market and empowering the government to dictate to stores what they must sell — in particular, barring them from refusing to sell eggs that are the products of grotesque cruelty.
It’s an ironic position, because this kind of intervention in the private sector was exactly what politicians like King accused the state of California of doing with the passage of Prop 2. O’Hayer, the Vital Farms founder, explained that when California voters adopted the animal rights measure, “the response was that we should let consumers make their own choices, and you can’t boss them around.” Now that consumers are choosing humane treatment of hens, the free-market principle has been kicked to the curb.
“It’s extremely hypocritical that Iowa’s factory farmers have pretended for a long time to care about protecting the free market,” said Chris Holbein of the Humane Society, “because now that the free market is turning against them and in favor of more responsible producers that are trying to do the right thing for consumers and animals, the factory producers want the government to force grocery stores to sell a product that is both unsafe and unethical.”