Proposition 2 focuses on treatment of farm animals

Proposition 2 on the November ballot calls for humane treatment of farm animals. It comes just a few months after a national uproar over the way cows were treated at a slaughterhouse in Corona. Proposition 2 targets some common practices in California's poultry industry. Egg farmers would have to quit packing as many as seven hens into a cage the size of file cabinet. Animal rights activists say that's cruel, but opponents say freeing the hens will come at a cost to the consumer, the farmer, and even the bird. KPCC's Steven Cuevas has our story.

Steven Cuevas: At Armstrong Egg Ranch near Temecula, half-a-dozen hens are packed wing to wing in crate-sized cages. Critics call them "battery cages."

Ryan Armstrong: So these are our cage houses, and this house houses about 10,000 birds.

Cuevas: Ryan Armstrong is a third-generation egg farmer. And he's right when he says the cage house is not exactly a hen's paradise.

Armstrong: We put 'em in cages that hang off the floor, so when they go the bathroom, it drops down to the floor, and we clean out the manure every week. So they're never in contact with their manure in these houses.

And they can stand up, sit down. They have the opportunity to groom. The one thing that they can't do is they can't spread their wings and not touch their neighbor.

Cuevas: The aisles are dotted with dead chickens. Workers don't pull them out until the end of the day. Hens often get snagged on the cage wire, or get their heads wedged in the feeder. But there's an upside for you, the consumer.

Armstrong: The eggs that come out of these systems are less at risk of Salmonella. And if this proposition passed, we would get rid of the program that ensures that safety.

Cuevas: If Prop 2 passes, housing hens like this in cage houses would be banned in California.

Jennifer Fearing: By 2015, egg-laying hens need to be allowed enough room to stand up, turn around, and fully extend their limbs.

Cuevas: Jennifer Fearing is the Humane Society of America's chief economist.

Fearing: Under the industry standard, six to seven hens can be crammed into a tiny cage, where each animal has less space than a letter-sized sheet of paper on which to live her entire life. They are often impaled by the wire.

They are unable to dust bathe, nest, perch – all behaviors that are not, have not been bred out of these animals. They have a strong desire to do them, and their inability to do so causes a significant amount of suffering.

Cuevas: The California Veterinarian Association endorses Prop 2. UC Davis vet Kate Hurley appears in a Prop 2 TV ad.

Kate Hurley: We wouldn't force our pets to live in cramped cages for their whole lives, and farm animals should not suffer this misery either. All animals – including those raised for food – deserve humane treatment.

Cuevas: This ad ends with an idyllic image of chickens roaming freely across a farm's lush green grass. But that's not the way most chickens would live if Prop 2 passes. They'd live more like this:

[Sound of cage-free hen house, with chickens squawking]

Cuevas: Welcome to a "cage free" hen house. Think New York subway platform at rush hour.

Armstrong: There's spread out, and while they have space to walk around in there, they don't have space to flap their wings without touching each other.

Cuevas: Like the cage house, it's wing to wing, but the birds can walk around, even flap up to a railing above the flock. Farmers like Ryan Armstrong operate a few of these houses because of the growing market for "cage free" eggs. But, he says:

Armstrong: There's a lot of foot diseases, intestinal diseases, respiratory diseases that we have in our "cage free" houses that we don't have in our cage. It's honorable, but the proposition will harm the very birds it's trying to protect. You know, birds live longer in the modified cage systems. You know, they have clean feed, clean water, the air quality's cleaner.

Cuevas: If Prop 2 passes, California egg farmers would have to give hens room enough to spread their wings without touching another hen. But farmers say, to do that, they'd have to make their "cage free" houses bigger – and that won't be cheap. Julie Buckner says farmers will pass the cost on to you. Buckner is the head of Californians for Safe Food, the coalition of egg producers opposed to Prop 2.

Julie Buckner: You know, the last thing that we need in California is more expensive food. And this initiative is not only an unsafe food initiative, but it's a costly food initiative.

Cuevas: Prop 2 supporters say that's wrong. They say the measure would only add about a penny to the price of an egg. And if Prop 2 passes here, they plan to take it elsewhere.

Fearing: This is about national reform.

Cuevas: Humane Society chief economist Jennifer Fearing:

Fearing: That's why you see out-of-state egg producers putting in three-quarters of the money to fight Prop 2. If this were really going to drive all California production out of the state, then you would expect to see Iowa egg producers or Mississippi egg producers supporting Prop 2. In fact, they're putting in millions and millions of dollars to fight it.

Cuevas: Opponents have spent about $8 million to stop Prop 2. The Humane Society of America has spent around 6 million. If Proposition 2 passes, egg farmers will have seven years to find ways to let every hen go "cage free."