Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Chicken happiness was a major subject in the latest effort to outlaw small, wire cages at egg farms.
Eli Berkowitz, the owner of 44,000 hens at Rhode Island’s largest commercial egg farm, Little Rhody Farms, claimed that the hens are more content in confinement than moving cage-free.
“I firmly believe that chickens are better off in the cage than on the floor,” Berkowitz said during an April 5 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.
On the floor means the chickens endure the stress of living in an enclosed warehouse, moving among thousands of hens and suffering the rigors of the pecking order, according to Berkowitz.
Berkowitz claimed that caged birds are more content and therefore lay more eggs living in a so-called battery cage for their two-year lives. They are also less prone to illnesses such as salmonella, he said.
Supporters of a ban on battery cages claim that caged hens are more stressed when denied innate activities such as perching, nesting, cleaning and foraging. Local veterinarians referenced studies claiming that salmonella is more prevalent in battery cages.
Opponents of the bill argued that a cage-free mandate is bad for people. Diane Sullivan, who worked for the National Pork Producers Council to oppose the the 2016 Massachusetts cage-free referendum, described the Rhode Island bill as a social and racial injustice.
“This bill is a hidden regulatory tax on animal protein that contributes to the gentrification of our food,” she said.
Much of the debate focused on money. Berkowitz said it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert his warehouses to a cage-free operation. Most consumers, Berkowitz said, want lower prices rather than to pay a premium for a dozen cage-free eggs. That premium, however, is insignificant noted Rep. Katherine Kazarian, D-Providence, during the House hearing.
Berkowitz said a low supply of conventional eggs in the state has driven up prices for eggs from caged chickens. On average, he said, a dozen cage-free eggs cost 50 cents to $1 more than eggs from caged chickens. He said he would convert his farm in Foster to cage-free if consumers demanded it. But only 15 percent of eggs sold are organic or cage-free, he said. If the state mandated cage-free, he said, sellers of conventional eggs from other states would cripple his business.
“If we don't have that opportunity (to compete) I’m in trouble,” Berkowitz said.
The livestock council for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management requires that Berkowitz increase the size of his battery cages to 160 square inches by 2035, but he doesn't have to get rid of them.
Joe Warzycha, director of operations for the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a member of the state livestock council and supports a ban on confining cages. He noted that the state recently banned gestation crates for cows and pigs.
“The General Assembly has clearly demonstrated by history the importance and the need for space for all species of animals. For some reason we’ve left out poultry,” Warzycha said. “I think they should all have the same fair treatment."
The Rhode Island ban on battery cages is endorsed by the Ocean State Animal Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Humane Society of the United States, American Veterinary Medical Association and more than 20 farmers. California, Massachusetts and Michigan passed voter referendums banning battery cages. Major retailers such as Walmart, Stop & Shop and Dunkin' Donuts are switching to cage-free eggs.
The Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association says increased cage space doesn't necessarily improve the welfare of egg-laying chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that cage-free hens have a lower mortality rate.
An online survey concluded that more than two-thirds of Rhode Islanders support a ban on caged hens. Last year the Rhode Island House of Representative passed the ban, 61-9, but the Senate didn't advance the legislation.
The bill (H7456) doesn't explicitly ban battery cages but gives Rhode Island egg farms five years to provide hens floor space to perform natural functions such as spreading their wings. The bill was held for further study. The Senate has yet to hold a hearing for the bill.