By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — While Massachusetts just passed a law prohibiting cages for egg-laying chickens, Rhode Island is proposing regulations that would allow the livestock practice to endure, perhaps indefinitely.
Animal-rights advocates are urging the public to speak out against proposed rules for Rhode Island that would permit an 18-year extension on the use of battery cages for chickens.
The Humane Society of the United States calls for an end to the practice and several other changes to the proposed regulations. But the animal-rights group focuses most of its attention on the use of the small cages that confine egg-laying hens for their lives.
So-called battery cages typically hold about a dozen chickens, each given the surface area the size of a legal-sized sheet of paper for their estimated two-year life.
The state's proposed new rules call for an 18-year phase out of battery cages and allowing the perpetual use of colony cages, which contain perches and areas for laying and scratching. Critics say colony cages are often more crowded and punishing than battery cages.
“If these regulations are approved, Rhode Island will have lower standards than Taco Bell, lower standards than Dollar Tree,” said Sarah Swingle, a public-policy specialist for the Humane Society.
The cage-free movement has grown in recent years. California’s ban started last year. Massachusetts followed this year on Election Day. Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Walmart, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Target, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Subway are making the switch to cage-free eggs.
Repeated efforts to ban battery cages in Rhode Island have failed in the General Assembly. Rhode Island has a single egg farm, Little Rhody Farms, that uses battery cages.
A livestock committee overseen by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) said the changes are needed because of a lack of administrative oversight.
DEM said it receives frequent complaints about the welfare of livestock. “Unfortunately, the department lacks the tools to enforce minimum standards for the care of these animals. These regulations will provide the standards and the means of enforcement of those standards,” according to the state agency.
The new standards were written by the seven-member livestock welfare council. Its members are Debora Bresch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA); Scott Marshall, state veterinarian for the Division of Agriculture; Lyn Spinella of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau; Christine Smith of the Potter League; Richard Rhodes III of the University of Rhode Island; Louis Vinagro III, a local hog farmer.
Bresch disagrees with the board’s recommendations and has urged stronger standards, including the end of battery cages.
“A variety of inhumane practices that are clearly out of step with good animal husbandry, animal welfare advances being made in other states and commercial farming, and also the will of Rhode Island’s legislature and public,” Bresch wrote in submitted testimony.
A request for comment from DEM wasn't returned.
Swingle said the proposed rules also would allow for painful amputations such as castration and dehorning to be performed without pain relief; surgery on a male chickens to pull out their reproductive organs with no pain relief; and mulesing, the cutting off of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the backside of a sheep.
Other groups also say the proposed standards don’t go far enough to protect animals: ASPCA, Providence-based Defenders of Animals, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, Center for Food Safety, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, The Humane League, Compassion Over Killing and Compassion in World Farming.
Comments on the regulation must be submitted by Nov. 14 to Scott Marshall, State Veterinarian, Division of Agriculture, 235 Promenade St., Providence, RI 02908 or via e-mail to email@example.com.