Exactly how much space is a chicken legally entitled to have in a California henhouse?
A Modesto farmer sued the state and the Humane Society of the United States on Wednesday seeking to answer that question, as egg producers begin overhauling their operations to meet an anti-cruelty measure that was approved by state voters in 2008.
The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court by egg farmer J.S. West, is asking for a judge to interpret and clarify California's Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, known as Proposition 2.
The 2008 measure, approved by more than 63% of the voters, banned small, confining crates or cages for veal calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant sows. The Humane Society campaigned heavily for the act — and its passage created a ripple effect, putting pressure on other states to enact similar reforms.
In California, farmers have until January 2015 to phase out their existing structures and build new facilities.
J.S. West argued that the law's language was too vague. The company said it has already enlarged the housing cages for about 8% of its flock this year but hesitates to sink an estimated $30 million into the remainder of the overhaul until it has more clarity on the cage specifications.
The measure's ballot language states that hens must be able to "lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." But it does not give exact dimensions for cages and enclosures.
"We're not challenging the legality" of the law, said Stephen J. Meyer, an attorney for J.S. West. "We're simply trying to determine if the $3 million spent [by the company so far] was well spent. We need a determination as to what we need to do. If we're wrong, we need to know that too."
The case will probably be closely followed by the agriculture industry, which doesn't want to spend tens of millions of dollars on facilities that fall short of the requirements, and animal welfare organizations that are worried that farmers will find ways to skirt the rules to save money.
The state attorney general's office declined to comment.
The Humane Society questions whether the new cages adopted by companies such as J.S. West will meet the spirit of the law. The lawsuit is simply a bid to "narrow or chip away at the voters' decision," Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the group, said in a statement.
"By a landslide vote, California voters have declared that animals raised for food should be able to turn around and stretch their limbs," Fearing said. "J.S. West should spend its time and money converting its operations to satisfy this simple mandate."