By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — During the final hours of the final day of the 2018 session, the General Assembly approved a ban on small, wire cages used for holding egg-laying chickens.
Rhode Island’s largest egg producer, Little Rhody Farms, is the sole user of so-called battery cages and an opponent of the bill. Little Rhody's owner, Eli Berkowitz, claims that battery cages are safer and healthier for egg-laying hens than open pens. Making the switch for his 44,000 chickens, he said, would cripple his business.
Animal rights supporters had tried for five years to convince the General Assembly to ban these cages, which crowd up to eight hens in a space no larger than a microwave oven for their 2-year lives.
“The practice of confining six to eight chickens in one small cage where they cannot even turn around or spread their wings is simply inhumane, and the practice needs to be outlawed,” said Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, the sponsor of bill H7456. “We would never tolerate seeing dogs or cats confined in this manner. The same rule of decency should apply to these birds.”
At Statehouse hearings, state veterinarian Scott Marshall stayed neutral on the ban but argued that the restriction would damage Little Rhody’s business and drive up costs for consumers. He cited a 2012 report by the American Veterinarian Medical Association that found barn-raised, cage-free chickens suffered from poorer air quality, and had more injuries and more disease than caged hens. Marshall favored making the cages larger instead of a ban.
Senate and House hearings packed with animal welfare advocates had little affect. This year, the bill seemed destined to die in committee, or perhaps clear one chamber of the General Assembly. But the word ban was replaced with a requirement that in eight years egg-laying hens must be allowed to “fully spreading both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens and having access to the amount of usable floor space.”
Although the bill doesn’t explicitly outlaw battery cages, it does make them obsolete, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
“We are grateful that the overwhelming majority of members of the General Assembly agree that the egg industry’s horrible practice of locking hens in tiny cages must end,” said Chris Holbein, public policy director for farm animal protection at the Humane Society.
The bill cleared the House on May 2, but the Senate didn't hold a hearing until June 23, the final day of the 2018 General Assembly. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in less than five minutes, with the help of influential lobbyist Robert Goldman.
Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, the sole vote against the bill, argued that the law would impose financial hardship on a family farm.
“It’s one family but it’s a lot of chickens,” Goldman quipped. “It depends if you are looking at it from the chickens’ point of view or the owner’s.”
“I’m with the chickens,” Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, said.
“We are going to eat the animals, at least we can be humane to them,” Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, said.
The Senate passed the legalization, 21-1. The bill was submitted to the governor for a signature on July 2. Once signed, Little Rhody has until 2026 to comply with the law.
Rhode Island is the sixth state to prohibit battery cages. Massachusetts voters banned them in a 2016 referendum. Michigan, Ohio, and Washington have bans. California is the only state to prohibit the use of battery cages and prohibit the sale of eggs from hens raised in batter cages.