Animal Rights Groups Question R.I.'s Battery-Cage Bill

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A farm animal protection group is disputing Rhode Island’s recent ban on battery cages, the wire containers used by egg farmers to house egg-laying chickens.

The General Assembly passed H7456 on the final day of the 2018 session. The bill and previous versions of it had specific guidelines for raising egg-laying hens, such as access to floor space and room to spread their wings without touching another hen or the side of the cage.

The bills were held up by Rhode Island’s largest egg farmer and the only commercial egg farm that uses battery cages, Little Rhody Farms. The 40,000-hen farm OK’d the 2018 bill after the deadline for compliance was extended from 2022 to 2026.

Also new to the 2018 bill is a provision set by the United Egg Producers, an egg industry trade organization, that requires a minimum of 1 square foot of space per hen. The bill, however, doesn't explicitly prohibit battery cages.

“We see nothing in the Rhode Island bill that prohibits cages,” said Jill Mountjoy of the Humane Farming Association (HFA), the San Rafael, Calif., nonprofit opposed to factory farming.

The bill, which awaits a signature by Gov. Gina Raimondo, states hens must be able to perform certain functions and only have access to floor space. The HFA says those rules are vague.

“For a measure to effectively ban cages, that must be specified. Otherwise, it’s completely open to interpretation,” Mountjoy said.

HFA accuses the Humane Society of the United States of yielding to the corporate egg industry by advocating for open-ended regulations with changeable deadlines. The Humane Society  helped write the Rhode Island legislation and was the primary advocate for the landmark 2008 voter referendum in California that has been widely perceived as the nation's first ban on battery cages.

HFA says the Humane Society promoted a referendum that failed to stop the use of battery cages. Many egg farmers were able to comply with the law by simply keeping fewer hens in a cage. Today a third of California hens are still raised in battery cages.

The Human Society is backing a new voter referendum that eliminates the loopholes in the 2008 law and in many ways is similar to the Rhode Island bill. Both require at least 1 square foot of space per chicken, while mandating that they be allowed to perform innate functions such as perching.

If approved in November, California’s Proposition 12 takes effect in 2022. But HFA says the bill’s reliance on industry standards means the deadline can be extended.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also opposes Proposition 12.

“This guideline is no different from the egg industry's current recommendations, so all the initiative will do is keep hens miserable while misleading well-intentioned consumers,” PETA media officer Sophia Charchuk said.

The Humane Society says that California's Proposition 12 and the new Rhode Island regulations are bans on battery cages. The animal welfare group accuses HFA of obstructing animal confinement reforms while failing to support ballot measures that regulate factory farming. The Humane Society says PETA opposes the referendum because it challenges all confinement regulations as part of its advocacy for vegan diets.

“While we can agree to disagree on strategy, PETA, like HFA, is simply making inaccurate claims,” according to the Humane Society.

While the wording in Proposition 12 and the Rhode Island bill don't overtly state that battery cages are prohibited, the Humane Society says the requirements make them obsolete.

Nevertheless, the wording in United Egg Producers guidelines means that the Rhode Island bill establishes confinement regulations and access to floor space and uses confusing language that the Humane Society insists is a ban on cages.

"Throughout the entire legislative campaign it’s been stipulated from both sides this is a cage-free law," said Chris Holbein, a spokesperson for the Humane Society, regarding the Rhode Island bill.

Yet, the regulations appear to promote hybrid “cage-production systems” that allow hens access outside cages.

The Humane Society says the new regulations explicitly outlaw battery cages. And most importantly they improve conditions for hens.

Like Rhode Island, the California referendum will be a success if approved, according to the Humane Society. “This historic measure will make real, concrete advancements that will dramatically reduce the suffering of millions of animals and lead to the end of cages for laying hens.”