Improving health of hens could hurt humans

10/09/2008 9:44 PM

11/19/2008 8:06 AM

Is Proposition 2 a rotten egg that will put an end to California’s $337 million dollar egg industry? Or is it just a push to make egg producers treat their money-making hens a little more kindly? Paul Shapiro, a director with the Humane Society of the United States, said that allowing hens, along with pregnant sows and veal calves, to have the ability to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs is only being humane.

“There’s currently no regulation on the egg industry,” Shapiro said. Dr. Nancy Reimers, a Gustine veterinarian who specializes in poultry medicine, said that while Prop 2 may be well intended, there’s a major problem with it: it will harm human health. Prop 2, on the November ballot, would require that producers of egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant sows keep their animals in humane circumstances. Nowadays, hens are kept in cages less than the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper.

Veal calves are penned their whole lives, unable to lie down. Sows are basically unable to move in their crates so they won’t crush their babies. The proposition would allow producers until 2015 to come into compliance with the new law. Reimers said the biggest health concern with eggs is the disease of salmonella enteritidis, which can make humans seriously ill, and is spread by eggs. “Producers in the mid-1990s got together with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and universities and developed a scientifically based program to minimize the amount of salmonella contamination in eggs,” Reimers said. “It’s been wildly successful.”

In fact, it’s been so successful that Reimers said there hasn’t been a case of salmonella enteritidis in California in more than a decade. That may change if Prop 2 passes, Reimers warned. “When you start talking about cage-free or free-range chickens, you see an increased risk of salmonella,” she said. But Shapiro argued that the measure isn’t asking for free-range hens. Getting the hens out of tiny cages would more than likely push producers to raise the laying chickens loose in barns, the same way that broiler chickens are raised.

“This proposition would actually improve food safety,” Shapiro said. Currently, hens in cages may defecate on one another, and that’s one way that salmonella is spread, Shapiro said. If the proposition passes, Shapiro suggests that the cost of producing eggs would go up less than one cent per egg. “Egg prices are already up 50 percent, which is far in excess of other food prices, including broiler chickens,” Shapiro said. “Producers are already jacking up prices.” He also said that Prop 2 will help smaller family farmers and raise the bar on how growers treat animals. “Some of these guys treat animals worse than prisoners, and the animals have done no crime,” he said.

Passing the proposition will more than likely put a lot of egg producers out of business in California, according to Reimers. “It will drive them out of the state, and possibly out of the country,” she said. “Some are already looking at Mexico.” Shapiro believes the proposition will help in turning around a low standard of how animals are treated in California. “The animals are at our mercy,” he said. “This is not about animal rights — it’s about human responsibility.” Voters will determine whether the measure is threat to human pocketbooks or a kinder, gentler way to deal with animal food sources. Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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