JS West’s Hen-Cam and the Future of Caged Eggs

May 12, 2011

Good coverage by Melanie Warner of California egg giant JS West’s new hen-cam.

The cam shows conditions that are a step up from standard battery cages, but it’s hard to imagine that many consumers will be comfortable with the level of animal welfare on display here. In fact, it’s a sure bet that some egg eaters will find the conditions deplorable enough to give up eggs.

So why the sudden voluntary transparency? Why would JS West take the initiative to put up this webcam, when the images revealed are probably more damaging than favorable in the eyes of consumers?

Well, surprise, surprise: JS West has an ulterior motive. See, what this cam is really all about is an effort to sabotage the terms of California Prop 2, which takes effect in January of 2015. Prop 2 clearly bans cage-based egg production. And in fact, the entire egg industry admitted as much in the months leading up to the vote.

So now JS West is suing both the Humane Society of the United States and the state of California in an effort to redefine the very clear terms of Prop 2. Basically, JS West is hoping that in exchange for keeping hens under less cramped conditions, they can prevail in a lawsuit that will gut Prop 2 of its anti-cage language.

So how much better are JS West’s so-called “enriched cages” compared to a conventional battery system? In 2009, the Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science published a study ranking egg systems on a scale of zero to 10. Standard battery cages received a zero, while 12-hen outdoor systems received a 10. And enriched cage systems of the sort adapted by JS West got a mere 2.3.

Compare this to the aviary and barn systems, which are the minimal requirements allowed by Prop 2—they earned a 5.8 and a 5.9. So while the conditions mandated by Prop 2 are far from perfect, what it requires is probably at least twice as good for the birds as what JS West is trying to ram through.

So now you start to see why JS West is willing to put its webcam online. While the company surely realizes that these images may cost it some customers, what they’re fighting for is the chance to dramatically water down the standards required by Prop 2. The company no doubt figures that if they drive some egg eaters toward veganism in the process, it’s a trivial loss compared to the fatter profits they’ll earn should they succeed in overturning California’s upcoming cage ban.

One last point worthy of mention. The facility shown on JS West’s webcams has 132,000 hens. The company has more than 1.5 million other hens kept in conventional battery cages. And you can probably guess the number of webcams installed in those facilities.

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