In a bid to dispel the notion that big is bad when it comes to agriculture, one of California's largest egg producers has swung open its barn doors for all to see. Swung open, that is, in the sense of having installed a live 24/7 hen-cam. At JS West's new 132,000-hen facility outside Livingston, Calif., viewers can watch multiples images of hens clucking around inside cages.
It's not exactly the San Diego Zoo's adorable polar cam, but the hen-cam and some related videos on JS West's Web site represent one of Big Agriculture's smartest attempts yet to blunt criticism of the often inhumane and filth-infested conditions of large-scale animal farming.
And it's a refreshing counterpoint to the trend in states like Iowa, Minnesota and Florida, where farm interests have pushed bills that seek to keep everyone out of their business, criminalizing any unauthorized photography or video on farms. (The Florida bill is dead, but those in Minnesota and Iowa are still in the running.)
What the camera doesn't show
But JS West's hen-cam still doesn't show what many Americans, and certainly those in California who overwhelmingly passed the anti-animal cruelty Proposition 2 in 2008, would like to see -- namely, chickens with plenty of room to run around freely. The company's egg-layers are still in cages, albeit roomier ones. And despite various new amenities like a curtained area for nesting, a scratch pad and a pair of metal tubes for perching, the hens likely don't have enough space to indulge in hen-like behavior such as wing flapping, wing stretching and preening (smoothing and cleaning feathers with their beaks).
Scientists who have studied how much space hens need for their conditions to be considered humane have decided that wing flapping requires 303 square inches per animal, preening requires 186 and wing stretching necessitates 144. Unfortunately, the birds in JS West's "enriched colony barns," which the company spent $3.2 million building, only have 116 square inches of floor space per hen. It's better than the industry standard of 67 square inches, but not exactly a reason to stand up and cheer.
Then there's the issue of the cages themselves. The Humane Society of the U.S. says that come 2015 they'll be illegal because Prop 2 bars egg farmers from confining their hens in cages. The group's web site includes a long list of quotes from egg industry reps saying as much before the measure passed.
In order to settle the issue, and head off an inevitable lawsuit from the HSUS, JS West filed a preemptive suit against both HSUS and the State of California, seeking to determine what exactly the requirements of the law are. Down the road, if a court rules that cages are illegal, that hen cam could end up being a window into a very expensive legal violation.
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