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Egg producers say lawsuit is a Prop. 2 ploy ahead of election

Egg producers in California and across the country are claiming that class-action lawsuits filed against them are merely a ploy to promote Proposition 2.

But proponents of the controversial measure say that price-fixing during the past 10 years is what launched the suits.

Prop. 2, if passed next month, would prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a way that doesn't let them turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. The measure would deal with three types of confinement: veal crates, battery cages for hens and sow gestation crates.

In the lawsuits, the egg industry has been accused of price-fixing by restricting the number of hens, and the number of eggs, which has led to huge increases in the price of eggs.

"This is a political dirty trick trying to smear the egg farmers and beat Prop. 2," said Mitch Head, spokesman for United Egg Producers, a national cooperative for egg farmers.

Head claimed that the lawsuits have no merit and were filed by the campaign for Prop. 2. "They are desperate and losing," Head said.

The lawsuits stem from egg producers self-regulating themselves 10 years ago, Head said.

At that time, producers increased the amount of space for each hen by 40 percent.

"The suits allege that since there were fewer hens in the same space, supplies were lower and prices were higher," Head said. "That kept prices up -- and that's illegal."

Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for the Humane Society of the United States, said the lawsuits were only brought after the Department of Justice had already issued subpoenas to a couple of major egg producers.

The Humane Society did its own investigation and found an exponential increase in egg prices and restricting output at the same time, Lovvorn said. "We sent our findings to the DOJ, and found out that they were already looking into price fixing," Lovvorn said.

One of the findings of the Humane Society was that between August 2007 and March 2008, the price of eggs went up by as much as 45 percent, and at the fastest rates in 30 years.

The latest polls show that Californians support Prop. 2 by a 7 to 1 margin.

Head said if the proposition passes, egg producers will flee the state. "A UC Davis study has shown that 95 percent of California egg farmers would be out of business in five years," he said. "A lot of eggs will be coming from Mexico, which has much worse food and animal safety than America."

But Lovvorn said increasing the living area for hens will help make eggs safer to eat.

"The opposition is telling people that (keeping the same) cage sizes is good for consumers, but we've found that their activities are in fact bad for consumers," Lovvorn said.

Voters will determine this chicken-and-egg controversy in three weeks.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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