In an ongoing campaign to unfetter the caged hen, the Humane Society of the United States plans to file a lawsuit in California today challenging a partial sales tax break for agricultural producers who purchase cages that animal welfare activists consider cruel and torturous.
Humane Society officials contend in their suit, a draft of which was obtained by The Times, that the use of so-called "battery" cages to confine egg-laying hens to a floor area smaller than a sheet of 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper violates California's laws against animal cruelty.
"It's time for the state to stop subsidizing it," said Humane Society attorney Jonathan Lovvorn, who was scheduled to file the suit in Superior Court in San Francisco.
Caged hens are the latest in a line of factory farm animals to benefit from the growing movement to extend humane care to agricultural animals raised to be exploited or slaughtered.
In the last decade, beef slaughterhouses have adopted relatively kinder procedures, and some states have outlawed confining cages for farm animals such as pigs and calves.
As consumer consciousness has been raised about veal calves immobilized in crates and foie gras ducks force-fed with tubes down their throats, so the plight of the country's 300 million egg-laying hens -- 95% of which can barely move in their cages -- has come to the fore.
"Battery cage eggs are becoming the next veal," said Paul Shapiro, manager of the Factory Farming Campaign of the Humane Society, referring to years of animal welfare activism to publicize the conditions of veal calves.
"Battery cages are among the cruelest factory farming systems in place today," said Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal welfare group. "The hens are packed in these wire cages. They can't stretch their wings, they can't walk, they can't exercise."
Non-caged hens are kept in large barns -- still in huge numbers but with enough space to move around, perch, dust-bathe and engage in other natural behaviors.
Representatives of egg producers insisted Tuesday that their cage systems were consistent with animal welfare standards set by independent animal experts. "The egg industry four years ago embarked on a major industry initiative to look at the cage production system and determine if it was humane and ethical," said Mitch Head, spokesperson for United Egg Producers, a trade association of egg farmers based in Alpharetta, Ga.
The Humane Society, however, says egg-buying consumers reject current cage conditions for hens.
"In the past 12 months we have seen an absolute sea change on this issue," Shapiro said.
In the last year, Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace -- both prominent natural-food chains -- announced they would no longer sell eggs from battery-caged hens. So did several universities and food-service providers.
Last fall, the Humane Society led a four-month campaign -- including leaflets and newspaper ads displaying chickens wedged into cages -- to get Trader Joe's to stop selling eggs from caged birds. The chain's agreement to switch its house brand to cage-free eggs has just taken effect.
"Over the past several months we have been listening to what our customers tell us about the choices we give them, specifically about their choices related to eggs," said a note posted Tuesday on the official Trader Joe's website. "As of today, all Trader Joe's brand eggs will come only from cage-free hens."
Egg producers who do sell cage-free eggs market their treatment of the fowl lavishly. On its website, Chino Valley Ranchers describes its hens' accommodations in spa-like terms: "The hens are housed in a valley, next to a free running stream ... "
But most consumers are, at best, conflicted over the connection between the lives of farm animals and the food on their tables. Few have the same level of concern for a nameless hen that they have for Ginger, their beloved golden retriever. "I think the majority of people in America have never heard of a battery cage," Shapiro conceded.
Unlike veal, the flavor of which is affected by the ability of the calf to move around, the taste of an egg does not change whether the hen lives its short life in a cage or in a large barn. (Generally, only a different diet alters the taste of the egg.)
"Most people have no clue how their eggs are produced," Farm Sanctuary's Bauston said. "There probably are people whose awareness needs to be raised." Egg producers on Tuesday said they did consider the welfare of the hens on their farms. According to Head, following advice from animal experts, producers in recent years increased hen space from approximately 48 square inches to the current 67.
"It's really the optimum space. If you give birds more space than that, they become territorial and start pecking each other," Head said. "All of this is based on science."