California Starts Requiring Bigger Cages For Egg-Laying Hens

As if brunch wasn't expensive enough — it's about to get even pricier. The cost of that pair of eggs on your plate is expected to spike this year. It may be bad news for your wallet, but it's certainly good news for hens. California, the nation's largest consumer of eggs, has started requiring farmers to house hens in roomier cages.

Prices for wholesale eggs are expected to rise 10 to 40% this year (likely even more, at first), as farmers now to either put fewer hens into each cage or invest in revamped henhouses. These costs will fall on the shoulders of consumers. But after the sharp rise, Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis, expects prices to go back to normal everywhere other than California.

In 2008, California voters approved a law to move egg-laying hens out of cramped quarters and into roomier conditions by January 1, 2015 so that the birds could (literally) spread their wings. Then, in 2010, state legislatures passed a companion law that requires out-of-state compliance.

This means that farmers outside of California also have to comply with the new henhouse requirements. So, naturally, egg producers in Iowa, Missouri, Alabama, and other states are suing over California's law.

"Egg producers have had six years to come into compliance with Proposition 2, and instead of using that time to convert to cage-free systems, they've simply sued and sued and lost every suit they filed while sitting on their hands," Paul Shapiro, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, told the Los Angeles Times.

For years, industrial farms in the U.S. have crammed hens into 8-by-8-inch wire confinements, stacked one on top of the other. Animal-welfare advocates say this treatment is not only cruel but also conducive to disease, but farmers argue it's a small price to pay for cheap protein.

While hens won't necessarily be given wide-open pastures to roam under California's new laws, they'll have a bit more room than they used to.

Some people (mostly those involved in the egg-producing business) argue that there isn't a big market for pricier, humanely-raised eggs, that low-income people rely on eggs as an affordable source of food, but we've seen consumers become increasingly more interested in responsible food shopping. They've been seeking alternatives to conventional eggs such as pasture-raised (hens with access to the outdoors) and cage-free (birds still in barns, but not in cages). Those eggs can cost two to three times as much.

Even before the law went into effect yesterday, farmers started making changes. The average wholesale costs hit a peak way before the new year — on Thanksgiving: $2 for a dozen large eggs.

But this spike hasn't discouraged major food companies like Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, and Kraft Foods from joining the movement. They have pledged to invest in more cage-free eggs.

It seems only fair that because hens provide us with so much nourishment, we should be giving them something in return, even if it's just a little more wiggle room. We're not completely there yet — as they probably shouldn't be caged at all — but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

What do you think of California's new law? Is it worth the price?

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