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The Failure of a Piece of Landmark Animal Welfare Legislation

California Proposition 2 has been in effect for a year now. Is it helping chickens?
(Photo: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty  Images)

(Photo: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act—commonly known as Proposition 2—was overwhelmingly passed by California voters in 2008. Addressing the harsh confinement of farm animals, the measure banned battery cages for chickens, veal crates for calves, and gestation crates for sows. There are very few pig and veal farms in California, so the law primarily affected owners of the state's 19 million egg-laying hens. The statute, which went into effect on January 1, 2015, survived a recent challenge to its constitutionality from opponents who believed the law could not be reasonably implemented. Prop 2 thus remains the law of the land in California. (I last wrote about the problems with Prop 2, and other incremental reforms meant to improve animal welfare, in February 2015.)

But a new report based on an undercover investigation by Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), a San Francisco-based animal advocacy group, suggests that questions of implementation may not have been off the mark. The focus of DxE's investigation was JS West, of Modesto, California, one of the state's largest egg producers, and a supplier to Costco, Safeway, and Trader Joe's. The investigation specifically focused on West's Dwight Bell Ranch facility, located in nearby Atwater. Multiple visits to the farm uncovered a systematic array of abuses, including dead chickens, "rotting chicken bodies," chickens deformed with "growths and abscesses," chickens starving because of botched beak trimming, chickens so crammed together that they were roosting atop each other, and birds with nails so long they could not properly walk. The investigators also found one hen so close to death—dehydrated and starved—that that they took pity and rescued her. She has since been rehabilitated and placed in a sanctuary.

"Putting hens in 116 square inches of space—that is beyond hell. You get these birds that are just psychotic out of their minds. They resort to cannibalism—they're stressed, they're mad, they're diseased."

What's especially notable about this latest investigation is that the Atwater farm is otherwise accustomed to receiving glowing press as a pioneer adopter of Prop 2 reforms (after initially resisting the measure). In 2014, New York Times writer Stephanie Strom visited the ranch and opened her adulatory report with the claim that "Hens in California are living the good life." Strom praised the updated form of confinement that Prop 2 required—116 square inches of space per bird rather than the customary 67 square inches—noting how birds "craned their necks out of the cages to stare and cluck at strangers, then withdrew to the safety of perches or the privacy of the laying nest, neither of which is available in conventional cages."

But Wayne Hsiung, former Northwestern University law professor and current director of DxE, discovered an entirely different scene (then, of course, he wasn't being led around by the ranch's senior vice president, as Strom was). "It was like a horror movie," he says of the first time he entered the facility, "the animals were so cramped and disfigured that we literally gasped in shock."

"The most striking thing about this footage is the overcrowding," veterinarian Sherstin Rosenberg said of the birds packed into "enriched colony housing" (allowed by Prop 2) when Hsiung showed it to her. "The crowding is so severe that most of the birds will never have a moment where they have sufficient free space." Hsiung also presented the footage to a California senior animal services officer (who requested anonymity). "Putting hens in 116 square inches of space—that is beyond hell," the official said. "You get these birds that are just psychotic out of their minds. They resort to cannibalism—they're stressed, they're mad, they're diseased."

None of this news should necessarily be surprising, if only because both JS West's and Prop 2's default mode has been, under duress, to cede to the conventions of industrial production. West has a rap sheet of former violations, including being found "not compliant" in February 2015 with the state's Shell Egg and Food Safety Regulations, a salmonella outbreak in 2010, and charges of anti-trust behavior dating back to the 1990s. As for Prop 2, despite all the goodwill the act has garnered from the animal welfare community, there's a remarkable caveat to the law: There's no real enforcement of it. Both the California Department of Public Health and the state's Department of Food and Agriculture have denied responsibility for regulation, leaving the job to local police departments and prosecutors. You can imagine how high a priority chickens are for a local sheriff.

If history is any guide, DxE's revelations of Prop 2's inadequacies will likely fall on deaf ears. It's easy—too easy in my estimation—to dismiss such findings as cheap animal rights propaganda. But I think the bigger problem is that Prop 2 was too hyped to fail. Organizations from the Humane Society of the United States—which raised $10.3 million to help enact the law—to food reform media outlets such as Civil Eats to celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Oprah hitched themselves to the humane promises of Prop 2.

HSUS wrote that, under Prop 2, birds will "have significantly better lives." Civil Eats noted that the law would lead to "the humane treatment of the food we eat." Acknowledging the reality of DxE's investigation, entertaining the idea that the law might be effectively meaningless, contemplating the possibility that the $10.3 million was wasted, well, that would mean eating some crow. But for those interested in achieving transparency in the food system, for those who really want to know where our food comes from, undercover investigations by organizations such as DxE are providing exactly what we have long demanded: transparency.

The fact that it's not what we hoped to see shouldn't prevent us from accepting that it's an accurate reflection of a law that, even in meeting its objectives, appears to have failed.