LIVINGSTON -- J.S. West & Cos. on Monday showed new housing for egg-laying hens that aims to meet the space standards approved by state voters in 2008.
The Modesto-based company completed the $3.2 million project in the face of criticism from the Humane Society of the United States, which argues that it falls short of what Proposition 2 will require as of 2015.
The barn, the first built in California since the measure was approved, will house about 132,000 hens, 8 percent of J.S. West's flock. The company hopes to convert all of the barns on its three farms over the next five years.
"It's not without risk, but we decided we wanted to be committed to our state and to our family farms in the Central Valley," said Jill Benson, a vice president at the 101-year-old company.
The new enclosures provide an average of 116 square inches of floor space per hen. The industry standard is 67 square inches, which defenders say is a humane way to keep birds that tend to crowd together even in spacious quarters.
The Humane Society contends that hens need at least 216 square inches each to meet the measure's requirement for enough room to stand up, turn around and flap their wings freely.
"Giving each hen a paltry legal sheet of paper's worth of space is simply not compliant with California law, and it's ridiculous for J.S. West to spend millions of dollars to build a facility that will be obviously illegal in a few years," said Jennifer Fearing, senior state director for the group.
Standard for 'cage-free' hens
A legal-size sheet of paper is 8½ by 14 inches, or 119 square inches. During the Proposition 2 campaign, proponents often said the 67-square-inch industry standard was less than a letter-size sheet, which is 8½ by 11 inches.
Fearing said the two sides agreed before the 2008 vote that the measure would require the 216-square-inch minimum, a standard set for "cage-free" hens by United Egg Producers.
As 2015 approaches, Fearing said, the Humane Society "will indeed do everything in our power to make sure the law is not broken."
Industry representatives have said the measure was vaguely worded and, if it required too much space per hen, egg producers could lose sales to out-of-state rivals. State lawmakers last week sent Gov. Schwarzenegger a bill that would make these outside companies comply with Proposition 2 for eggs sold in California.
J.S. West on Monday held a tour of the new barn south of Livingston for government officials, industry colleagues and other people. It provided an advance look for The Bee last week.
The company did not have live hens on hand for the tours, a measure aimed at preventing avian disease, but it used life-sized artificial hens to show how the new system works.
Conventional cages typically hold six hens in a space about 2 feet long, 1½ feet deep and 1 foot high. The new enclosures will house 60 birds in a space about 12 feet long, 4 feet deep and 1½ feet tall. They will start to be used today.
The new system adds features designed to meet various hen needs -- a curtained area for nesting, a pair of metal tubes for perching and a "scratch pad" that helps the bird clean itself. The means of bringing feed in and taking eggs and manure out are similar to the small cages.
As used in Europe
The new enclosures were made by Big Dutchman Inc., based in Michigan. They are similar to systems being installed in the European Union, where a ban on small cages will take effect in 2012, said Eric Benson, president of J.S. West.
"We believe that this implementation satisfies all of the requirements of Prop. 2 and that there will always be space in this enclosure for a bird to be able to perform the behaviors that Prop. 2 requires, such as being able to stand up or turn around or flap her wings without touching another bird or the side of the cage," he said.
The extra space will add 12 to 15 cents to the cost of producing a dozen eggs, assuming they are processed with the conventional eggs, Benson said. It would cost a dime more per dozen to run the eggs from the large enclosures through the plant separately, he said.
The company is considering marketing these eggs at a higher price, with information on the label about how the hens are housed.
Monday's gathering included an announcement that the new housing got a stamp of approval from American Humane Certified, an animal-welfare group not affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or firstname.lastname@example.org.