Which came first: Chickens, eggs or Proposition 2?
A year and a half after California voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to improve the treatment of chickens, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday took the next peck by signing a bill to extend the same protections to out-of-state birds.
How can California do that? Using the power of the marketplace, more specifically the power of the huge population of egg consumers in the Golden State.
Proposition 2, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (see this op-ed from its CEO), banned cages for chickens (and pens for veal calves and pigs) that are so small the animals can't turn around or fully extend their limbs. The law, of course, applies only to animals raised in California.
Much to the irritation of humane activists, The Times editorial page urged that voters reject the Nov. 4, 2008 initiative. We expressed concern in our editorial that the well-intentioned measure would merely outsource animal misery by encouraging the import of cheaper out-of-state eggs.
"So," we wrote, "California eggs would become more expensive, and many consumers would simply buy the cheaper eggs laid by hens living in cramped conditions in neighboring states or in Mexico. As a result, we fear the result of Proposition 2's passage would not be better treatment of hens but merely the export of their mistreatment."
In fact, soon after Proposition 2 was adopted (with 63.5%, or more than 8 million votes, in favor), there were official moves afoot in Idaho, Nevada and other states to lure California producers to move their hens and their businesses to more producer-friendly territory. Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael, joined by Republican Tom Berryhill of Modesto and Democrat Dean Florez of Shafter -- all of which are egg-producing districts -- responded with AB 1437. The bill bans the sale of eggs in California unless they were laid by chickens under roughly the same space guidelines as those that Proposition 2 applies to eggs raised here.
Schwarzenegger took the unusual step of including a message with his signature, explaining that the law is good for egg producers as well as animals. He certainly also saw that Californians, who can't agree on much, are overwhelmingly in favor of animal welfare. In other words, the governor was saying, "Nobody here but us chicken-lovers."
So we at The Times editorial page got what we wanted, and all's well that ends well, right? Right? Yes -- except that it's still worth noting, as we did in our editorial, that the price of eggs here may go up. Or not. See this Times story published after the vote explaining that prices would be unaffected -- in large part because cheaper out-of-state eggs would be imported. Things are different now that imports must follow the same cage guidelines.
How different? It's hard to predict, because we don't know how many out-of-state producers will retool to keep or grab a share of the California market, so we can't calculate the supply-demand equation. I strongly suspect that among editorial writers, just as among voters, the question of chicken welfare is based at least as much in emotional response as in reasoning, policy and economics. No matter the price increase, some of us would still say "Don't be cruel to chickens!" and others would say "Huh? They're just chickens!"
A few loose ends: (1) This doesn't make California cage-free. Many, probably most, egg producers here will continue to raise their layers in cages. (2) AB 1437 applies only to "shelled eggs," which should make any non-lawyer say, "Wait, what, huh? Does that mean eggs that are no longer in their shells, sort of like 'shelled walnuts' means walnuts that have been removed from their shells, or 'pitted prunes' means prunes with their pits removed?" No, don't worry. It means eggs still in their shells, sort of like 'bottled water' means water contained within a bottle. Really. They promise. And (3) Why does this law not take effect until 2015? Is government really that slow? No, it's because Proposition 2 was written to give California producers sufficient time to revamp their operations to get into compliance, so the bill gives out-of-state producers the same time.
By the way, the photo above is not of California chickens but of their counterparts in Maine, and accompanied a story about the Humane Society's campaign against cruelty to the birds in that state -- just in case there was any question about the society keeping up the fight after its California victory.
Photo: AP / Robert F. Bukaty