At the J.S. West and Cos. poultry farm, half a million chickens are squeezed six at a time into wire cages where they must share 2 square feet of space.
Beneath them, conveyor belts whisk away excrement while 1.2 million eggs travel from hen to carton each day without touching a human hand.
California voters will decide next month whether this kind of operation is an example of factory farming at its most efficient – or the cruel practices of producers concerned only about the bottom line.
If approved in the Nov. 4 election, a ballot measure called Proposition 2 would prohibit ranchers from keeping chickens, veal calves and breeding pigs in pens or cages that are too small for the animal to move. It is the farthest-reaching measure dealing with farm animal treatment ever put before voters in any state.
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Ranchers would have to ensure that their animals can stand up, turn around or stretch.
But since producers have voluntarily phased out the caging of newborn calves and breeding sows, debate over the measure has centered primarily on California's 19 million egg-laying chickens, 90 percent of which are housed in battery cages like the ones at J.S. West.
The restrictions would take effect in 2015, with violations carrying a $1,000 fine.
Major egg producers oppose the initiative and insist the current method of mass production is the most efficient way to deliver inexpensive eggs. They warn that egg producers will move out of state or across the border if voters approve Proposition 2.
The J.S. West farm in Atwater, about 110 miles southeast of San Francisco, has delayed expansion plans while awaiting the voters' decision.
“Even if I had money to make all of the changes, we would not be competitive with the rest of the nation,” company President Jill Benson said.
Opponents have raised nearly $7.5 million, including donations of $100,000 or more from at least 15 poultry producers.
Supporters have raised nearly the same amount, including $3.8 million from the Humane Society. Most of the rest has been donated by individuals.
Jennifer Fearing of the Yes on 2 campaign compared the chicken cages to spending “your entire life on an elevator with eight other people.”
If it passes, supporters hope it would trigger a national movement aimed at poultry producers.
Supporters of Proposition 2 say it will give small egg-farming operations a better chance to compete. But large egg producers argue that the small farms cannot meet California's demand for an inexpensive source of protein. Even the large producers can meet only two-thirds of California's demand, Benson said.
Benson said the health of their hens is of foremost concern to farmers.
“Ask them how they know our chickens are unhappy,” Benson said. “They're making emotionally based decisions about what chickens want.”
About 10 percent of California's eggs are produced by cage-free hens.