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California farm animal rights law would require room to roam

July 25, 2008 |  6:22 pm


VACAVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Kim Sturla began bringing goats, pigs, chickens and cows once slated for slaughter to the Animal Place sanctuary 20 years ago, before supermarkets offered eggs from cage-free hens and beef was advertised on menus as being hormone free.

Two decades later, the treatment of farm animals is a national issue being debated in state legislatures and put before voters who want to have a say in how their food is raised. Footage circulated on the Internet of sick farm animals being kicked and beaten has intensified calls for reform.

“People want conditions to change,” said Sturla, who co-founded the Animal Place sanctuary for abused and discarded farm animals in 1989. “On this issue, you don’t have to give propaganda. In fact, you have to downplay the conditions or people will shut down. They’ll think you’re embellishing.”

This fall, California voters will consider  the most comprehensive farm animal rights law in the country, a measure that would ban cramped metal cages for egg-laying hens, metal gestation crates for pregnant sows and veal crates for lambs — standard industry practices in which the animals are kept so confined that they can barely move.

The initiative follows more limited measures recently passed in several other states ...

Earlier this year, the Colorado Legislature became the first in the nation to prohibit the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs and veal crates for calves.

In the last three years, Florida and Oregon voters have banned gestation crates and Arizona voters banned both gestation crates and veal crates.

A showdown between proponents and opponents of the California measure, initiated by the Humane Society of the United States, looms. While California’s pork and veal farming is small, the egg industry, the fifth largest in the country, is preparing an all-out campaign to defeat the measure.

The United Egg Producers and the Pacific Egg & Poultry Assn. says the measure would threaten the health of hens and eggs, since hens allowed to roam free might contract avian diseases from exposure to the outside or their own droppings. Moreover, the cost would be so prohibitive it would force an end to the egg industry in California as of 2015, when the initiative would go into effect, the group says.

“This ballot measure, sponsored by a Washington, D.C.-based special interest group, will have dangerous and expensive consequences for California,” said Julie Buckner, a spokeswoman for Californians for SAFE Food, a group created by the egg industry to oppose the initiative.

“The measure jeopardizes our food safety and public health, putting us at greater risk for salmonella and avian flu outbreaks; cuts off consumer choice for safe, local, fresh and affordable California eggs; and drives up the cost of basic groceries at a time when Californians are already struggling with high gas, housing and other everyday living expenses,” Buckner said.

But proponents of cage-free hens are banking on momentum. The initiative boasts a long list of endorsements, from the California Democratic Party to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Proponents are also bolstered by an independent report by the Pew Commission. For humane reasons, the report recommended several changes in the way animals are raised for food in the United States, including the phasing out of so-called battery cages that keep the hens cramped.

The food industry, from markets to restaurants to food producers, is also moving toward cage-free eggs. Chains such as Whole Foods Market and Bon Appetit and food companies such as Wolfgang Puck are ending the use of eggs from caged hens. Other chains such as Safeway have issued purchasing preferences for cage-free eggs and urged their suppliers to move away from battery cages.

Not least, the public is more aware of the conditions surrounding so-called factory farming, advocates for the initiative say.

“Our society is more attentive to animals than ever before,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “You have felony cruelty statutes in every state. You have high-profile public awareness of animal abuses.”

In recent months, the farm animal rights cause received a boost from two widely circulated undercover videos.

In February, an undercover video shot by investigators for HSUS at a slaughterhouse in Chino showed cows too sick to walk or even stand being kicked, beaten, dragged and prodded with forklifts in order to force them to slaughter. The video led to the closure of the plant and, because of concerns of sick cows spreading disease, the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

In May, a Chicago-based animal protection group, Mercy for Animals, released undercover video it said was taken at an egg producer in California’s San Joaquin Valley that showed close-ups of chickens with open, infected sores crowded into metal cages holding rotting bird corpses. It also showed a worker stomping on a sick hen as it flapped its wings to avoid being kicked into a manure pit.

The group said the video was shot at facilities run by the West Coast’s largest distributor of eggs, Gemperle Enterprises of Turlock, Calif., which has denied abuse and suggested that the video was taken at another facility.

That video was damning, but unfair, said Ryan Armstrong, a third-generation egg farmer in San Diego. “I don’t know what happened,” Armstrong said, “but those aren’t common farming practices. We don’t promote what happened and we definitely don’t condone it.”

Various videos of hens packed into tiny cages are widely circulated on the Internet, including YouTube, fueling the cage-free movement.

Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, the first haven for rescued farm animals in the country, began videotaping conditions in hen houses and slaughterhouses in 1986, the same year Farm Sanctuary was incorporated.

For the first 10 or so years, the footage received little notice. Then the Internet entered the mainstream.

“The Internet has been a very useful tool because people have been generally unaware of what happens to animals on farms,” Baur said. It has also helped Farm Sanctuary expand. It operates a 175-acre headquarters in Watkins Glen, N.Y. and a second site, in Orland, Calif., about 150 miles north of San Francisco.

Animal Place houses 300 rescued cows, pigs, goats, rabbits and chickens on a 60-acre ranch about 50 miles from San Francisco. But the sanctuary, funded by private donations, is moving to a 590-acre spread in Grass Valley, Calif., later this summer, thus becoming the largest of what are still only a handful of farm sanctuaries across the country.

“No doubt,” Sturla said, “we’ll find ourselves filling up with animals before we know it.”

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

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