Amid growing consumer awareness of livestock conditions, The NY Times reports that factory farming "is on the verge of significant change." The article discusses new legislation that demonstrates a "rare compromise" between farmers and animal rights activists.
Citing legislation in California, the article discusses new policies that might catch on in other states. The main concerns are, of course, consumer preference, price and yield. Consumers are increasingly seeking food that is "natural" and free of antibiotics. Unfortunately, consumers are also hesitant to pay higher costs for animals raised in these ways.
According to the Times, California limited "extreme caging methods" in 2008, and these practices must be eliminated entirely by 2015. The state has also banned importing eggs from other states where crowded cages are still legal. The article cites similar policies in Michigan, Arizona and Florida. The Ohio compromise between farmers and animal rights activists states that there can be no "new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages," and that within 15 years, pregnant sows can no longer be tightly caged. Within seven years, veal calves in tight cages must be phased out as well.
The article gives human voice to the issue, citing (among others) Ohio farmer Tim Weaver, who runs a chicken farm "where four million birds produce more than three million eggs a day." The article says Weaver cages six to seven hens in "cages about the size of an open newspaper." Weaver told the Times he believes he is doing "the right thing" with his farming methods, following protocol practiced by more than "90 percent of the country's egg [producers]."
Facilities like Weaver's use computers to control air circulation, lighting, and feedings as well as waste management. The birds are rarely touched (read: contaminated) by human hands, and the story cites Weaver as saying the birds are healthy and happy, thus their prodigious egg-laying.
The article also mentions Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States. Pacelle counters that chickens were built to move, roll in the dirt, perch, and nest on their eggs. The article states that raising chickens in this way would increase overall egg prices by 25 percent, which would affect "consumers and school lunch programs." But, the article asks, is price the ultimate issue?
The Times implies that farmers would respond to consumer demand if consumers voted with their wallets for free-range products at stores and restaurants. For now, state-by-state timetables are slowly spreading across the country as individual farm policies zero in on specific language. For instance, can larger cages with perches still allow chickens to truly move freely? The article ends by predicting a "legal wrangle" over the language in the laws, which would likely mean a huge change for the agricultural industry.