20 January 2011 ~ 53 Comments

Going Cage-Free in Washington?

Yesterday, Washingtonians for Humane Farms, an organization supported by the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary filed a proposed ballot initiative and started a campaign in Washington state to halt the use of battery cage confinement in egg production. It’s an exciting moment for Washington and for the entire animal welfare and cage-free movements. As Humane Society CEO, Wayne Pacelle puts it, this is to help correct a serious moral failure in Washington:

We are generally reluctant to proceed with ballot initiatives, and prefer negotiated agreements, as we achieved not too long ago with agricultural leaders in Michigan. But when talks fail, we are left without other options. There is a major moral issue at stake here. It is cruel and inhumane to cram and crowd together for life laying hens in small cages. The birds are so tightly packed that they are unable to move much at all and entirely unable to nest, dust-bathe or perch. It is a life of privation and frustration.

Perhaps the key point is, there is a commercially viable alternative: cage-free production. Many egg producers maintain cage flocks and cage-free flocks, so they know they can raise animals without keeping them locked in tiny cages. With so many retailers, such as Burger King, Safeway and others increasing their share of cage-free egg purchases, or going entirely cage-free, like Whole Foods, it’s clear that this is the trajectory of this industry. A stubborn refusal to change old and inhumane ways is not going to help the industry. All industries must adapt and innovate with changing times and attitudes, and the writing has been on the wall for a long time with this industry.

Environmental, public health and animal cruelty violations in Washington battery cage operations date back more than a decade. In 1999, Amberson Farms was fined by the state’s Department of Ecology for discharging Salmonella-polluted runoff into a salmon-bearing tributary of Lake Stevens while plaguing the neighboring community with swarms of flies and a stench that affected nearby schoolchildren. Fecal bacteria levels in the afflicted waterway were 15 times the state’s contamination limit, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to threaten the egg factory with penalties of up to $27,500 a day. A cruelty complaint led sheriff’s deputies to the ghoulish discovery of thousands of hens dead or dying of starvation in a rat-infested shed with inoperable feeding and watering systems. The owner pleaded guilty to animal cruelty, yet paid only a $500 fine.

Though Amberson Farms is now gone, the problems associated with battery cage operations continue. At one massive cage facility designed to hold 1.8 million birds, Washington State University researchers found: “The fly population was rated 5 on a scale of 1 to 5…A score of 5 reflected a fly population so high that the workers could not talk to each other for fear of flies getting into their mouths.”

The status quo in Washington is bad for the birds, bad for consumers, bad for the environment, and bad for the workers. It’s time for change. We succeeded in California (Prop 2) just over two years ago, and we can do it in Washington this year. But we need your help to gather over 300,000 signatures and put together a full-scale campaign. Go to humanewa.com to get involved.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I consult with the Humane Society of the United States on ways to expand their online community to protect animals and confront cruelty — something very important to me and my family.

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