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Major Fight Over Chicken Houses

FRESNO (CN) - An egg farm says California has provided no guidance on how to comply with the state's Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. JS West Milling Co. says it has spent $3 million on new chicken houses, and is looking at spending another $30 million on them - with no assurance that the state might declare the new chicken houses illegal.

JS West says it has "had no guidance from the state, any agency or Department of the State, or the Attorney General as to what is required" to meet Prop. 2 requirements.

California voters approved Prop. 2 in November 2008. It prohibits agricultural practices that prevent "any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from: Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and turning around freely," according to the complaint.

In 2010, the California Legislature adopted AB 1437, which extends Prop. 2's requirements "to all eggs sold in California, including eggs produced in other states," the complaint states.

JS West seeks a declaration that its "enriched colony housing system" meets Prop. 2 standards, and that it should not be forced to switch to a cage-free system before it spends $30 million on new and existing egg facilities.

West claims the Humane Society of the United States, Prop. 2's chief advocate, has changed its position on the reform, claiming that "cage free" is the minimum required in California, and that JS West's colony system would "be obviously illegal in a few years" when the proposition is enforced on Jan. 1, 2015.

JS West, which houses more than 1.5 million laying hens in the San Joaquin Valley, says Prop. 2 does not ban all chicken housing systems.

The Humane Society's interpretation is inconsistent with Prop. 2, which "clearly contemplates" housing systems, and refers to "enclosures," West claims. Cage-free also would be subject to the measure since they take place in an enclosed structure, according to the complaint.

At one of its egg farms, in Livingston, Calif., West says it installed an enriched colony housing system certified by the American Humane Association, "the nation's largest and oldest third-party certifier of farm animal welfare." West says the enriched colony housing systems provide hens with opportunities for perching and nesting, and more room than conventional systems.

West also claims that the colony system is superior to cage-free systems because hens "suffer less disease, have lower mortality, and enjoy healthier air quality than many organic and 'cage free' hens."

West says that hens in cage-free systems are "often grouped together by the hundreds or thousands in an open barn, where both birds and eggs often come into contact with fecal matter resulting in disease, and higher instances of salmonella."

Prop. 2 requirements are "vague, and there is substantial disagreement among the agricultural community, animal rights groups, and other interested parties as to what they require," the complaint states.

West adds that it soon must begin investing in new and upgraded facilities to comply with Prop. 2, but it "cannot spend tens of millions of dollars upgrading its facilities to comply with an uncertain initiative only to find out later that its new facilities are out of compliance."

West claims that it and other egg producers are concerned about the "uncertainty" of the requirements and the potential risk of sharp price increases or the unavailability of eggs if business is interrupted because of confusion surrounding the proposition's requirements.

West claims that its enriched colony housing system has been used in the European Union for more than 10 years, and more than 30 million laying hens are housed in these systems worldwide, which "does not prevent its hens from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs, and/or turning around freely, as those terms are defined in Proposition 2."

According to the complaint, the Humane Society of the United States "has issued veiled threats to West's customers for selling eggs produced in West's EU-compliant housing systems that West contends comply with Proposition 2."

The Humane Society allegedly claims that the egg farms' claims are "misleading" and are not compliant because they do not use a cage-free system.

JS West seeks a judicial determination "that the enriched colony housing system ... installed at West's facility in Livingston, Calif., meets the requirements of Proposition 2."

It is represented by Stephen Meyer and Gregory Broderick with Downey Brand in Sacramento.


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