Drama in Quest to Rid Rhode Island of Battery Cages

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The bill (H6023) banning battery cages is on the same path it followed the previous two years: moving through the House and dying in the Senate. Nevertheless, the legislation enjoyed political theatrics on the House floor last week.

Opponents, all Republicans, claim a ban on confining wire cages, also called battery cages, would put the state's only egg farm out of business. While Little Rhody Egg Farms in Foster is Rhode Island's largest egg producer, with some 40,000 hens, it's not the only one. But it is the only farm using the controversial battery cages.

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said banning battery cages would close Little Rhody and put 18 employees out of work. “That’s inhumane," he said.

Little Rhody owner Eli Berkowitz has testified at House committee hearings that it's too expensive to switch his 40,000 hens from battery cages to larger crates.

Supporters of the ban noted that hens are debeaked and live their entire lives of about 18 months in wire cages with other hens. Republican opposition, said Rep Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, is “solely for the purpose of some selfish business owner’s profits.”

The debate lasted nearly 20 minutes, with comment from nine representatives. The bill passed, 61-9. The bill is headed to the Senate, where no hearing has been scheduled.

The ban has the support of the Humane Society of the United States, the Ocean State Animal Coalition, the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Providence Animal Rescue League.

Chippendale noted that the state Department of Environmental Management and the state veterinarian, Scott Marshall, oppose the bill and instead favor a plan by the state livestock council to phase out traditional battery cages by 2034 and replace them with cages that provide 116 square inches per hen.

As part of a national trend that favors cage-free farming, several grocery stores, restaurant chains and food manufacturers have pledged to sell only eggs that aren't raised in battery cages. California and Massachusetts banned cages for egg-laying hens. The Rhode Island bill coincides with the Massachusetts ban that takes effect in 2022. The Massachusetts referendum was approved by 77 percent of voters. California passed its ban in 2008.

Chippendale said opponents of battery cages are simply swayed by photos of gruesome conditions at egg farms. But the photos don't represent the conditions at Little Rhode Egg Farms, he said. Several members of the General Assembly toured the farm last year and all agreed that the hens weren't suffering, according to Chippendale.

Berkowitz is running a respectable business that regularly passes health inspections, he said. “He’s not a greedy farmer. He loves his animals. He doesn't want to get rich on eggs. No one gets rich on eggs,” Chippendale said.