There’s a big fight brewing in the world of chickens. It’s all about how much living space they should have, and it’s an issue that may eventually impact Connecticut’s poultry industry and how much you pay for eggs.
Connecticut has more chickens than people. According to federal statisticians, Connecticut actually had more chickens in 2013 than all the rest of New England combined: our poultry population topped 3.9 million birds last year and those chickens laid 667 million eggs.
The national debate concerns a California ballot initiative passed in 2008 that set new (and by U.S. poultry industry standards) extraordinarily roomy requirements for how much space a hen should have. That would effectively outlaw so-called “battery cages” used in most big-time industrial-style poultry operations where hens are confined to small wire enclosures.
In 2009 and 2011, there were attempts in Connecticut’s General Assembly to outlaw those “battery cages” the way California did. Both efforts failed.
The California law requires that egg-laying hens be given room enough to flap their wings, stand up and move around. It also requires that eggs from outside California that are sold in that state be from hens raised under the same standard, and those provisions will take effect in January 2015.
That would hurt the big-time egg producers in places like Iowa and other Midwest states. They favor putting as many chickens as possible in the smallest amount of space allowed that will still get them plenty of eggs to meet the massive demands of American consumers at the lowest price. Critics insist those methods are inhumane and cruel, that cramped conditions lead to disease, and they believe more and more consumers agree with them.
Missouri’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit arguing the California standards violate interstate commerce protections in the U.S. Constitution. Big Food is also gearing up for the fight, fearing such restrictions on production could eventually hit industrial-style beef and pork farming.
In 2009, a General Assembly hearing on the Connecticut proposal to ban battery cages brought a massive response from the poultry industry. The biggest producer in this state is Kofkoff Egg Farms, which has major facilities in Bozrah and Lebanon.
But it wasn’t only Kofkoff that warned of the consequences of passing a bill mandating larger cage sizes for hens. The Teamsters were against it. New England Central Railroad was against it. The Connecticut Farm Bureau, the state Department of Agriculture, Interstate Commodities Inc. were opposed, as were town officials in Bozrah and Lebanon.
“The industry says it’s going to be a disaster,” state Rep. Diana Urban, D-Stonington, said this week. Urban sponsored the legislation in 2009 and 2001. “But it’s not going to be a disaster… and this is coming, why not lead the way?”
Urban doesn’t have any anti-battery cage bills in this year – in 2014 she’s concentrating on legislation to ban tiny “gestation crates” for pigs, even though Connecticut apparently doesn’t have any farmers that use them to raise swine.
“I’ll go back to battery cages,” Urban said of her plans for next year. “No question about it.”