Diluted Battery-Cage Ban Unlikely for This Year

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill that bans raising chickens in crowded cages made it through the House but appears unlikely to advance through the Senate, likely killing its chances for the 2015 session.

The legislation was created at the request of the Humane Society of the United States to stop the state’s largest egg producer from using a cage they say is cruel to hens. Called a battery cage, the wire crate is about the size of a microwave oven and typically holds between six and eight chickens for their entire two-year lifespan.

The Humane Society recently released an undercover video taken at an egg farm in Gettysburg, Pa, that it says shows the cruelty of battery cages.

Little Rhody Egg Farm in Foster, the largest egg farm in Rhode Island, keeps about 44,000 hens in battery cages. Eli Berkowitz, the farm’s owner, says the cages are proven to be humane. Berkowitz believes a ban would threaten his business.

“We don’t think we are being cruel. We are trying to provide a healthy environment,” he recently told ecoRI News.

Berkowitz also pointed to a report released in 2014 by a state livestock advisory council that recommended a minimum cage size of 116 square inches per hen. This legislation seeks at least 216 square inches of space in an unconfined area.

Berkowitz declined to allow ecoRI News to visit the farm, citing concerns over the spread of avian influenza, or bird flu. Other Rhode Island poultry farms are restricting access to their flocks due to the same concerns. Berkowitz said he lost his entire stock of hens to bird flu in 2004.

After a recent hearing on the bill, Denise Melucci, owner of a small farm not far from Little Rhody Egg Farm, described battery cages as a “fate worse than death. (The hens) can’t move.”

The European Union banned battery cages in 2012. Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, says it plans to make the switch to cage-free eggs by 2020. Startbucks also is phasing out eggs from battery cages. California passed a ban on battery cages in 2008, and the ban took effect this year.

The Rhode Island bill originally sought to ban the cages, but has since been watered down to only outlaw new ones. Existing battery cages would be permitted to stay in use until 2034 or until they can no longer be repaired.

However, the fate of the bill looks uncertain this year. The General Assembly seeks to wrap up the current session by June 26 and a hearing has yet to be scheduled. The bill passed the House on June 17. It must be advanced through a Senate committee before it can head to the Senate floor and on to the governor’s desk.

Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for the Humane Society, believes there is still time for the legislation to pass. But if the bill dies, it will be back next year, he said.

“We’re not going to stop until battery cages are banned in Rhode Island,” Dominguez said.