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Egg farmers ask to join JS West in lawsuit
chickens pic1
A group of “Hollywood chickens” serve as stand-ins for the live poultry during an open house at the new Prop. 2 compliant JS West Milling Company farm in Livingston in June 2010. - photo by Journal file photo

The Association of California Egg Farmers (ACEF), an industry association that represents 70 percent of California’s egg farmers, filed an application to join JS West, a Modesto-based egg farming company, in a lawsuit against the State of California and the Humane Society of the United States.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to clarify for JS West (and all egg producers in the state) the exact requirements for egg-laying hen housing systems, which was not specified in Proposition 2, according to JS West. In 2008, California voters passed Prop. 2 to increase cage sizes and living conditions for hens in egg-laying production facilities.

In December 2010, JS West filed the lawsuit in California Superior Court- Fresno because the law (Prop 2) does not provide the exact size or dimensions for an enclosure and the law fails to state the number of hens that can occupy an enclosure. Also, the law does not specify the furnishings needed within an enclosure.

Last year JS West built a new hen housing facility for 150,000 hens at a cost of $3.6 million, but the Humane Society felt the facility failed to meet standards.

In 2008 the Humane Society spearheaded Prop. 2, concerned that the standard industry egg-laying cages were too cramped for hens. Prop. 2 requires that California egg farms come up to new standards by 2015. According to Peter Brandt, the Humane Society’s senior attorney for farm animals, the regulations and standards have been clear.

“We’ve always made it clear that hens must be able to turn around, lay down, stand up and fully extend their limbs; it’s no mystery” he said.

However, in no way does Prop. 2 specifically state the exact size of a cage, number of hens per caged area or specify the furnishings within the enclosure.  

Jill Benson, a JS West vice president, explained that the company built the facility under a European Union model of regulations.

“We call it an enriched colony system and the goal is to provide a holistic approach for the hens. The hens have nest boxes, emery boards for scratching claws and perches,” she said.

The holding pens at the JS West plant, located near Livingston, are 4-feet wide by 12-feet long and can hold as many as 60 hens. This equals out to about 116 square inches per hen.

“The hens can perform their natural behaviors when laying eggs and we give them fresh feed and fresh water,” added Benson.

Hens at the barn are also assigned a human caregiver who walks the barn to give hens proper medical care.

“They (JS West) just want to push it and put more and more hens into smaller and smaller spaces so they can make the most amount of money,” said Brandt.

According to Benson, the American Humane Association (AHA), a third-party certifier of animal welfare housing systems, recently concluded the JS West facility was safe by their standards.

“Our concerns are with the welfare of the hens and we did certify the enriched colony system, its operations and we certified JS West as an egg producer. The size of 116 square inches meets our standards for size per hen and the requirements for a natural behavior. The hens have the ability to sit, stand, turn around and extend their limbs,” said Kathi Brock, director of strategic partnerships at the American Human certified program. “I’m not familiar with the Humane Society’s science, but our scientists say the space is adequate for an enriched colony. Our evidence is based on good science and good research.”

The AHA is the oversight organization for Hollywood and its treatment of animals in films.

JS West estimates that it will spend $30 million to build new egg farm barns for 1.8 million hens.

“We just can’t spend that kind of money without certainty, we need to know so we can comply by 2015,” said Benson.

JS West also estimates it will cost California egg farmers more than $1 billion to upgrade existing barn/ housing facilities for 19 million hens statewide by 2015.

In December Benson was quoted in the Journal stating, “if egg farmers don’t know what the rules are soon, there is a real risk that they and the jobs of the more than 4,000 people they employ may be jeopardized.”

Brandt disagreed with her statement.

“The lawsuit is premature; the law doesn’t even go into effect until 2015. The company decided to build the facility years before the law goes into effect and then they ask what the rules are,” he said. “This intense confinement of hens by the millions is inherently cruel to hens and voters by a landslide said ‘enough is enough.’”

“We aren’t trying to overturn Prop. 2. We respect the voting process and the voters’ wishes. We just need clear regulations so we can know exactly how much space to give hens so we can comply with the law. We just want clarity because the law creates more questions than answers,” said Benson.

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.