A chicken doesn't need very much space to be able to stand up, turn around, and spread its wings, but most chicken farms keep birds in cages too small to do even that.
That's why, in 2008, California voters approved Proposition 2: a measure that required all egg farmers to make sure their chickens had enough space to at least stand up and stretch—one of the most progressive farm animal welfare laws in the country. The law went into effect in January, 2015, and this week, the first charges were laid under Prop 2, leaving an egg farmer facing more than four dozen animal cruelty charges. If convicted, the farmer could face up to 180 days in jail for each cage size violation and a year for each animal cruelty count.
"If you are going to harm animals here in the Inland Empire, we are going to hold you responsible," Mike Ramos, District Attorney for San Bernardino county, told the LA Times .
Hohberg Poultry Ranches is facing 39 misdemeanor counts under Prop. 2, plus an additional 16 misdemeanor counts under other animal cruelty laws. Along with not providing chickens enough space under Prop. 2, authorities said conditions on the farm were "horrendous" and that birds were living in cramped cages next to the decaying bodies of dead birds.
From the beginning, Prop. 2 has stirred debate. Though many people dubbed it a "cage free" law, that's not exactly what it was. Prop 2., which became the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, requires that "calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." Many animal rights groups expected this to spur a de facto shift to cage-free, but the law leaves it open for farmers to simply use bigger cages.
This has caused conflict between farmers who think converting to bigger cages that meet the new standards is too costly, and animal rights groups that say they never really wanted them to keep using cages anyway.
But California's law has already set off a chain-reaction moving towards a cage-free standard for egg-laying hens, Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, argued in a blog on the recent charges.
"[Prop. 2's] passage led to a re-examination of the way hens are raised in the United States, triggering a national movement that has resulted in more than 200 of the nation's biggest food sellers—from McDonald's to Walmart to IHOP—pledging over time to sell only eggs from hens free of cages," Pacelle wrote.
And this past fall, Massachusetts voters followed California's lead, voting to approve a ballot measure that bans the sale of meat or eggs from animals that aren't given enough space to move around.
It's true that, on the consumer side, there's been a growing push to get hens out of tightly-confined eggs and, if not in the picturesque, pastoral fields of our imaginations, at least into a space that lets them turn around and spread their wings. But many farm groups argue raising hens this way isn't cost-effective, and will drive up the cost of eggs.
There's sure to be more debate going forward over whether a big cage is as good as, better, or worse than an open barn, especially if similar laws begin to roll out across the country. But the charges laid this week speak to a less complicated interpretation of the law: if the birds are cramped in tiny, dirty cages and can't move, that's a clear violation that nobody wants to see.