QUESTION: If a chicken rancher has 50,000 chickens and he has to pay $40 a hen for new roomier cages to meet a state mandate how much of the cost are consumers going to absorb?
ANSWER: All $200,000.
Chicken ranchers have until 2015 to comply with a law adopted five years ago by state voters barring the sale of eggs in California unless they are laid by chickens who are kept in cages larger than the conventional cage size of 67 square inches. Just how big those cages have to be has left a lot of chicken farmers scratching their heads. That's because the 2008 Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act failed to specify an exact size. That has left farmers to try to answer a question as mind numbing as the old what came first question about either the chicken or the egg?
Dianne Feinstein, the mother hen of the U.S. Senate, in May laid out a federal solution known as the Egg Products Inspection Act. It would create a standard for American chicken cages to replace the scattering of various laws that dictate different sizes in various states. A similar bill was introduced in the House by Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon.
The bills would adopt the decade-old European Union standard calling for chicken cages to have 116 square inches complete with a required nesting box as well as place to perch and scratch. The proposed legislation would also prohibit the sale of any eggs that aren't laid by chickens in roomier cages.
As surprising as it may sound even though the Humane Society is behind the bill there are animal rights groups opposed to it. Organizations such as the Humane Farming Association are crowing up a storm about states' rights and even claiming that besides pre-empting state laws it is a "direct assault upon egg laying hens" and voters.
They also are madder than a wet hen because the Humane Society joined forces with the United Egg Producers.The two adversaries said the bill was introduced "to protect the economic interests of the egg industry." United Egg producers represent 95 percent of America's egg farmers.
The 2008 law would essentially close the California market to out-of-state eggs starting in 2015. The proposed federal law would keep the 2015 deadline in place for California egg producers to comply with the 116 square inches and would give egg farmers in the other 49 states until 2029 to comply.
It's not clear whether the other 49 states with out-of-compliance cages could still sell eggs in California between 2016 and 2029. But then given Obamacare who would expect any proposed bill in Congress to bother with such details?
Of course, the law would mean California sensibilities would be imposed on egg producers who aren't in the Golden State. It will take a lot of scratch to pay for the conversion. A Sonoma County egg rancher who has a million egg-laying hens says it will cost him $12 million to comply with the new standards in addition to money he has already spent trying to figure out what the state wants.
A lot of consumers will end up squawking about this when they realize they are the ones ultimately paying for the more spacious cages. With 280 million producing hens in cages consisting of 67 square inches that means it could cost $11.2 billion to replace all of the cages with bigger ones. If the law passes you might want to invest in companies that produce chicken cages. With a little luck, you can make enough off the stock to still afford a McMuffin or the future equivalent of caviar - a cartoon of a dozen eggs.
Even though two arch enemies are cooing about the proposed federal standards, there are more than a few folks who are trying to clip the wings of the bill.
A lot of agricultural trade groups that represent farmers and ranchers aren't thrilled with the prospect of Congress mandating how animals are raised. Among those is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
One would think they'd have a bigger beef with the move backed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for the undertaking in Great Britain to grow meat in a laboratory from cattle stem cells. In a taste test earlier this month such beef was said not to be as tasty due to the lack of fat. No worries yet for cattle ranchers. The price of a burger patty made in the lab comes to $332,000 each. A Triple Mac would set you back a cool $1 million not including fries and a soft drink.
Perhaps Feinstein and her colleagues along the Potomac might want to make sure laying chickens are treated as humanely as possible by funding stem cell refresh to create eggs for America's McMuffins and soufflés.
It's got to appeal to politicians. A $332,000 hamburger patty with no taste fits right into Congressional mentality.
As for $40 cages coming to $11.2 billion, that's chicken feed by Washington standards for forcing the private sector to comply to a new federal mandate.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.