By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Little Rhody Farms is Rhode Island’s biggest egg producer. It’s also the state’s only farm using cages that animal rights activists want outlawed.
The wire containers, called battery cages, are about the size of a large microwave oven and typically confine up to 10 hens for their entire lives, or about two years. After which, the hens produce fewer eggs and are slaughtered for their meat.
The Humane Society of the United States said the cages are cruel and increase the spread of harmful bacteria such as salmonella. Hens lack space to spread their wings and regularly suffer broken bones in these cages, according to The Humane Society.
“It’s very cruel and the animals are not offered an opportunity to engage in any natural behavior like foraging or perching,” Sarah Swingle, public policy coordinator for The Humane Society, said during an April 2 House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources hearing on a bill to restrict the use of such cages.
Al Bettencourt of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau countered, arguing that the ban would be bad for the economy.
“This state has got a reputation as not being very friendly to business. Here you are again talking about regulation,” he said. “Let’s stop regulating business.”
Holding a carton of cage-free eggs, Bettencourt noted that consumer demand should be the sole force driving egg producers to change their ways.
“If more people went out and bought cage-free eggs, then the farmers are going to meet the demand ... and they’re are going to raise cage-free chickens,” he said.
The European Union, Michigan, Oregon and Washington state have restrictions on cages used in egg production. California banned battery cages in 2008 through a voter referendum. The law didn’t take full effect until January. Bettencourt claimed the change has decreased egg production by 20 percent and increased the price by 35 percent.
Numerous media reports suggest that the price increase is because farmers in California reduced the number of chickens per cage rather than switching to larger cages. Other reports placed he blame on higher egg demand and low production nationally because of bad weather.
A provision to set national standards for battery cages was stripped from the 2014 farm bill.
The cage-free movement, however, has prompted some food businesses, such as Burger King, Subway and Unilever, to make the switch to cage-free eggs.
A recent survey conducted in Rhode Island by the Remington Research Group showed that 70 percent of respondents favored a law for larger cages. Sixteen Rhode Island egg producers also signed on in support of the legislation.
Cage free, it should be noted, doesn’t mean the hens aren’t confined. They typically are housed in barn-type structures, but not in cages. Free range isn’t an official designation for egg production and therefore not monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it is implies the chickens spend some time in the outdoors, typically in a coop with open-air access.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) testified against the legislation.
“It’s not a strong opposition,” state veterinarian Scott Marshall told ecoRI News.
He explained that a livestock advisory committee he chairs investigated the battery-cage issue last year and decided to increase the space per chicken from 85 square inches to 116. Little Rhody Farms, however, was granted grandfathered status until 2034.
Marshall said battery cages have the benefit of constant food and water. Animal waste is removed immediately by conveyer belts, which reduces the risk of harmful bacteria. Chickens also lay more eggs in battery cages, he said. But he also noted that confinement likely creates stress on the hens.
“There are very compelling arguments on both sides. I wish it was more clear,” he said.
Eli Berkowitz, owner of Little Rhody Farms, told ecoRI News he has studied the issue for years and determined that the cages are more sanitary than large backyard flocks.
“There are pros and cons,” he said. “I understand that concern. But I use scientific research. I want my birds to be healthy and happy and to produce eggs.”
Switching to larger cages for his 44,000 hens, he said, would cripple his business.
Battery cages are used by most of the industry. Berkowitz believes his business is being singled out because it’s the only farm in the state using battery cages, making it easier for the Humane Society to score a victory.
The 40-acre farm in Foster started in 1954 and sells eggs wholesale to grocery stores, universities and restaurants. Rhode Island has about 50 commercial egg producers, according to state officials.
“I try to do what I think this is the best,” Berkowitz said. “Nobody in this industry is trying to harm animals.”
The bill doesn’t outlaw cages specifically, but does add chickens used for egg production to the list of animals protected from severe confinement as stated in a 2012 law. The bill was held for further study.