Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Banning the use of cages to raise egg-laying chickens is a popular idea with the public but not one Rhode Island lawmakers and regulators are ready to embrace.
A survey initiated by an animal-rights group found that 68 percent of Rhode Islanders support a bill to outlaw so-called battery cages and confining gestation pens for pigs and cows.
Across the country, national retailers and major food businesses, such as Walmart, Stop & Shop, McDonald’s and Unilever, have pledged to make the switch to cage-free eggs. In November, Massachusetts voters decisively approved a referendum outlawing battery cages for hens. California voters banned them in 2008.
But some Rhode Island lawmakers say the bill threatens the state’s largest egg farmer, Little Rhody Egg Farms in Foster. The farm uses battery cages exclusively and said it will cost $800,000 to switch from a caged to a cage-free operation.
“I don’t want to put the poor fella out of business," Rep. Raymond Hull, D-Providence, said during an April 7 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.
Hull toured Little Rhody Egg Farms at the invitation of the farm’s co-owner, Eli Berkowitz. After the visit, Hull concluded that he was “quite impressed” with how the hens are treated.
Hull’s view is shared by the state Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau and the National Association of Egg Farmers.
State veterinarian Scott Marshall said the law spells financial ruin for Little Rhody Egg Farms. He also claimed that battery-cage farms are more humane than cage-free operations. He referred to a 2012 report by the American Veterinarian Medical Association that found barn-raised, cage-free chickens suffered from poorer air quality, more injuries and more disease than caged hens.
Marshall, the National Association of Egg Farmers and the Rhode Island Housing Authority argued that a shift to cage-free eggs would drive up costs for consumers, especially low-income residents. Comparisons between caged and cage-free eggs show a price difference of pennies to a dollar or more per dozen for cage-free eggs.
Proponents of the ban say animal welfare should outweigh economic uncertainties of the lone egg farm in the state that uses battery cages.
Sara Shields, an animal-behavior specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, said decades of research show that chickens suffer when they are deprived of their natural activities such as perching, running and foraging. Caged hens can't perform these activities and, thus, endure greater stress, broken bones and more disease, she said.
“Without a doubt cage-free is much more humane, and there is decades of scientific research to show that,” Shields said.
Alexis Lerner, a medical student and member of the Brown University Animal Rights Coalition, described a battery cage as a cruel and archaic practice. She compared it to being stuck in the middle seat of crowded airplane for life, or being pregnant and confined to an area the size of your body.
The bill was previously heard in 2014 and 2016, but never made it out of committee. In 2015, the House approved legislation banning battery cages. But the Senate did not hold a hearing for the bill.
The process for amending livestock rules has been complicated by the state livestock welfare council, which Marshall heads. In 2016, the council voted to allow Little Rhody Egg Farms to keep its battery cages until they can no longer be replaced.
“We feel a regulatory approach is superior to legislation, because regulations can be more nimble and can reflect the best available science more quickly,” Marshall said.
The legislation mandates a phase out of battery cages until 2022, the same year that the Massachusetts ban on battery cages takes effect.
Despite strong public opposition to battery cages, Berkowitz said most shoppers care more about price.
“If you go into supermarket today there are not 68 percent of the people buying cage-free eggs,” Berkowitz said. “The demand is not there.”
The bill was held for further study.