Government

Single Farm Stands in Way of Ban on R.I. Battery Cages

PROVIDENCE — Banning the use of cages to raise egg-laying chickens is a popular idea with the public but not one Rhode Island lawmakers and regulators are ready to embrace.

A survey initiated by an animal-rights group found that 68 percent of Rhode Islanders support a bill to outlaw so-called battery cages and confining gestation pens for pigs and cows.

Across the country, national retailers and major food businesses, such as Walmart, Stop & Shop, McDonald’s and Unilever, have pledged to make the switch to cage-free eggs. In November, Massachusetts voters decisively approved a referendum outlawing battery cages for hens. California voters banned them in 2008.

But some Rhode Island lawmakers say the bill threatens the state’s largest egg farmer, Little Rhody Egg Farms in Foster. The farm uses battery cages exclusively and said it will cost $800,000 to switch from a caged to a cage-free operation.

“I don’t want to put the poor fella out of business,” Rep. Raymond Hull, D-Providence, said during an April 7 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Hull toured Little Rhody Egg Farms at the invitation of the farm’s co-owner, Eli Berkowitz. After the visit, Hull concluded that he was “quite impressed” with how the hens are treated.

Hull’s view is shared by the state Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau and the National Association of Egg Farmers.

State veterinarian Scott Marshall said the law spells financial ruin for Little Rhody Egg Farms. He also claimed that battery-cage farms are more humane than cage-free operations. He referred to a 2012 report by the American Veterinarian Medical Association that found barn-raised, cage-free chickens suffered from poorer air quality, more injuries and more disease than caged hens.

Marshall, the National Association of Egg Farmers and the Rhode Island Housing Authority argued that a shift to cage-free eggs would drive up costs for consumers, especially low-income residents. Comparisons between caged and cage-free eggs show a price difference of pennies to a dollar or more per dozen for cage-free eggs.

Proponents of the ban say animal welfare should outweigh economic uncertainties of the lone egg farm in the state that uses battery cages.

Sara Shields, an animal-behavior specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, said decades of research show that chickens suffer when they are deprived of their natural activities such as perching, running and foraging. Caged hens can’t perform these activities and, thus, endure greater stress, broken bones and more disease, she said.

“Without a doubt cage-free is much more humane, and there is decades of scientific research to show that,” Shields said.

Alexis Lerner, a medical student and member of the Brown University Animal Rights Coalition, described a battery cage as a cruel and archaic practice. She compared it to being stuck in the middle seat of crowded airplane for life, or being pregnant and confined to an area the size of your body.

The bill was previously heard in 2014 and 2016, but never made it out of committee. In 2015, the House approved legislation banning battery cages. But the Senate did not hold a hearing for the bill.

The process for amending livestock rules has been complicated by the state livestock welfare council, which Marshall heads. In 2016, the council voted to allow Little Rhody Egg Farms to keep its battery cages until they can no longer be replaced.

“We feel a regulatory approach is superior to legislation, because regulations can be more nimble and can reflect the best available science more quickly,” Marshall said.

The legislation mandates a phase out of battery cages until 2022, the same year that the Massachusetts ban on battery cages takes effect.

Despite strong public opposition to battery cages, Berkowitz said most shoppers care more about price.

“If you go into supermarket today there are not 68 percent of the people buying cage-free eggs,” Berkowitz said. “The demand is not there.”

The bill was held for further study.

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  1. How come there are so many poor people when everyone is looking out for them – in this case the egg farmers, but also Exxon-Mobil wants to get oil to poor communities, Inverenergy wants them to have cheaper power, plastic bag retailers protecting them from reusables, Mattiello by eliminating the "regressive" car tax, anti-minimum-wage-increase forces acting so they can have jobs, Paul Ryan and Obamacare repealers helping them avoid expensive comprehensive health care, pesticide manufactures also doing it to keep food costs down for the poor, anti-abortion anti-birth control crowd wanting them to have more babies, churches praying for them….

  2. What a joke – if you’ve ever taken the time to see what "cage free" looks like, you’d wonder why animal advocates waste their time and resources pushing for it. It’s one giant overcrowded cage, and as much as I hate to agree with animal ag, it’s arguably worse. Or at least bad in its own unique ways. Not to mention it makes people more comfortable with killing and eating animals.

    Everyone dances around the issue. Here we are acknowledging that animals matter morally, but nobody bothers following that obvious idea through to its logical conclusion. Which is, if animals matter morally, then at the very least we owe them the most basic of obligations – we must respect their right not to be used as property.

    But no, instead we play this silly game where we try to figure out which forms of confinement, torture and death are most satisfying to our delicate sensitivities.

    It’s really quite simple – either animals matter morally and we are obligated not to use them as expendable resources; or animals do not matter and we continue to eat, hunt and wear them, and quibble about the size of their cages.

  3. I have come to believe that changing the regulations about how livestock should be raised will not improve the living conditions for animals. Farmers are not raising animals inhumanely because they want to. They are raising animals inhumanely because it’s the cheapest way to produce livestock products. At the end of the day, we all need to pay the bills. If chickens living in cages allows a farmer to feed his or her children because their customers happily pay $2.00/dozen for the eggs, then most farmers are going to choose that (as is the case in America today). Banning cages is not going to keep hens from being raised inhumanely. Farmers are creative people and will devise a new system for producing eggs cheap enough that the average American consumer will pay for them. Unfortunately it will likely be just as, if not more inhumane for the hens. The government doesn’t care about treating animals humanely. For some reason the USDA has decided that the most important thing in agriculture is keeping the cost of food as low as possible, even at the expense of the consumer’s health, environmental health, and animal welfare.

    The only solution that I believe will change this is for consumers to stop buying cheap livestock products.

    1) Don’t order meat, eggs, or dairy in restaurants unless you know the farm the products come from and you know the practices of that farmer. Ask your server where the meat comes from on their menu and how the animals are raised there, so that the server learns that you care and eventually explains to his/her boss that the customers are not ordering meat any more because it comes from Tyson and Smithfield. Don’t just trust that because a restaurant says they source locally and sustainably, that the New York strip steak is actually from the farm whose logo is on the front door of the restaurant. More often than not, I have found that restaurants "usually source from that farm, but they didn’t have enough this week, so this beef is from Sysco."

    2) Stop buying meat and eggs from the grocery store, even the organic stuff. Period. It’s all horrible.

    3) Don’t eat meat at a friend’s barbeque unless you know the farmer and practices, and explain to your friend why that is important to you.

    4) Don’t eat the meat at the conference lunch table, while convincing yourself that it’s ok because it has already been paid for and those animals have already suffered, so why waste it? If lunch after lunch, the only thing left on the table is the sketchy meat, the business paying for those lunches will stop ordering meat.

    5) Find a livestock farmer you trust and support them at whatever cost they need to survive, which is likely 2 to 10 times the cost of supermarket livestock products. And ask that farmer if he raises all of the animals that he sells. Odds are if a farmer is selling meat or eggs at a comparable price to the grocery store, that farmer is not raising all of the animals, but instead buying animals from a farm (or warehouse) with much poorer practices because it’s cheaper and less work than raising them. Or else that farmer cares enough about ethics not to mistreat the animals, so instead that farmer works another job to pay for the farming hobby because the consumers will not pay enough for that farmer to survive off the 60 hours per week of farm labor.

    Farmers are resourceful business people and are perfectly capable of adapting to market demands. Demand quality, integrity, environmental conscientiousness, and the humane treatment of animals, and that is what farmers will supply. Eat less meat, eat better meat, and be willing to pay for it. I know this is a tall order, but there is no better way to end the inhumane treatment of animals (let alone the environmental degradation and human health risks) than to stop encouraging the businesses that are raising animals inhumanely.

  4. @providenceAnimalLiberationLeague it’s about taking baby steps…first you get rid of battery cages, then you push for pasture raised, just like hens live in the wild, in their natural habitat. If you never take that first, admittedly sometimes not-so-amazing first step, you’ll never get to the end goal, which is more humane living conditions for the animals that we rely on for our sustenance.

    Imagine a person in jail, in a 6×6 cell. What awful conditions! Let’s move them to a yard with sunshine, and 200 more inmates. WHAT?! Those inmates could be crazy. Some inmates will get in fights, some may die. I want by 6×6 cell back…But, over time, as prisons get reformed and prisoners get the help they need to reintegrate into society, that yard with sunshine becomes an ideal living space and leads to happier humans. Going backwards to the 6×6 cell would be torture. Just a random analogy but maybe it helps us humanize the situation with farm-raised animals and animal products.

  5. It will cost approximately $800,000 to switch from a caged to a cage-free operation according to this article. The biggest question here is, "Who is going to financially help this well established egg farm transition to a cage free operation if this bill were to pass?" This farm is clean, managed properly and has been a family run business for several years producing an abundance of healthy fresh eggs for the state of Rhode Island. Animals should be treated humanely I strongly agree, but regardless if the animal is caged free or not it all starts and ends with the farmer and how the farmer treats their animals and how the farm itself is managed. I have seen animals in muddy fields stepping over their own feces and being exposed to all types of weather conditions. Is that healthy? In this particular case, the farm is clean, well managed and the chickens are producing healthy eggs. If the eggs were soft or the egg production declined then those are signs that the chickens are not healthy and not being properly cared for. This is not the case for this particular farm. If this bill were to pass, then help this long term farmer transition over by providing him with the assistance that he needs.

  6. I’m guessing that the boycott against them has cost more than $800,000. I haven’t bought their eggs in over a year and know others you have done the same. Would you treat your cat or dog the way they treat their animals??

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