By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The effort to outlaw raising chickens in small cages sparked a testy debate at the Statehouse. The wire cages, known as battery cages, are about the size of a small oven and are considered cruel for the hens confined to them for life. The cages can hold up to 10 hens at a time.
The owner of the state’s largest egg farm and other supporters of the practice, however, say the cages are healthier than other options.
Consumers are also endorsing the practice by continuing to buy eggs from confined birds, said Eli Berkowitz, owner of Little Rhody Farms in Foster, during a March 3 House hearing. “People are looking for value,” he said.
State veterinarian Scott Marshall said 90 percent of the eggs sold in Rhode Island are from hens confined to battery cages. The industry standard is about 70 square inches of space per hen. Marshall heads the state livestock care advisory board, which seeks a 116-square-inch space standard — the most stringent in the country after Michigan. The proposed legislation sets a 216-square-inch minimum.
Marshall defended battery cages, saying that eliminating them or increasing their size doesn't always make life better for chickens, as they need room to perch and nest.
One of the benefits of cages, proponents argue, is that they allow manure to drop to the ground. Cage-less chickens are more prone to be exposed to pathogenic bacteria by eating or living in their waste, said Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers.
Opponents of battery cages say they prevent chickens from their natural behaviors such as roosting, nesting and cleaning themselves.
“I know firsthand that chickens are smart and cramming them into cages that deny all their natural behaviors is simply wrong,” said Denise Melucci, owner of a small farm near Little Rhody Farms.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, said a ban on battery cages and enacting other legislation to protect animals is one of the most important roles of the General Assembly.
“If you saw six cats living in [a battery cage], or six dogs living in it, there is no way on god’s green earth you could close you eyes at night and say, ‘Yes that’s humane,'” Serpa said.
Little Rhody Farms is the only one of the three commercial egg farmers in the state to use battery cages. The farm keeps 40,000 chickens, small compared to farms in Connecticut and Maine that house 5 million hens.
Berkowitz said the proposed law would put him out of business. If everyone in Rhode Island donated $1 to his company, he said, he could afford the $600,000 cost to switch to cage-free farming.
“The bill you proposed really hurts my business,” Berkowitz said.
The European Union bans battery cages. Massachusetts is expected to vote in November on a statewide ban on eggs from caged chickens.
The Rhode Island legislation includes an exemption for Little Rhody Farms by allowing existing cages to be used until they no longer function. Last year, the House passed a similar bill. The Senate did not act on the legislation. This year's bill was held for further study.