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New law clouds egg industry's future

Petaluma Farms' co-owner calls for clarification of Proposition 2

Published: Friday, April 23, 2010 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.

The local egg industry once again will be capturing the local spotlight as Butter & Eggs Days festivities approach, but its future remains cloudy, largely due to the pending enforcement of a proposition passed in 2008.

Facts

Parade at a Glance

•What: 29th annual Butter & Egg Days Parade.
•When: Noon, Saturday, April 24.
•Where: Downtown Petaluma.
•Information: www.petalumadowntown.com or 762-9348.
•Special section: See 32 page program inside this week's Argus-Courier.

“Proposition 2 is poorly written, and it's still not known how it will be interpreted,” said Steve Mahrt, who, along with wife Judy, owns and operates Petaluma Farms.

This proposition, the Standards for Confining Farm Animals Act, was passed by California voters on Nov. 4, 2008, and states that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” Violations can result in misdemeanor penalties, including a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail.

The proposition will become effective on Jan. 1, 2015.

Supporters of Prop. 2 claim that it will mandate more humane treatment of animals, but the room needed for them to turn around freely is not further specified, and some critics contend that it's not clear if the proposition applies to cage-free hen operations, such as Petaluma Farms, at 700 Cavanaugh Lane.

“I hope that the California Department of Food and Agriculture will clarify the situation soon,” Mahrt said, adding that renovations would take considerable time.

Due to the confusion, in June of 2009, the Association of California Egg Farmers requested the state legislature to enact clear standards. And last month, Debbie Murdock, the executive director of the organization, wrote in the Poultry Times, “The uncertainty of complying with the new mandates in California is threatening farming families, the jobs they create and the taxes they generate for local governments and the state.”

A bill presented by Assembly-member Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would require the state Department of Public Health to develop and adopt regulations regarding housing standards for egg-laying hens by Jan. 1, 2011, and would make violations a crime. Also, starting on Jan. 1, 2015, it would prohibit the sales of shelled eggs for human consumption that are not produced by an egg-laying hen that was confined in compliance with animal-care standards.

Critics claim that if the cost of eggs rises due to the costs of renovations, this would put California egg producers at a competitive disadvantage with those in other states and Mexico.

“Nothing in the proposition would stop eggs from coming in from these places,” Mahrt said. “And if the price of local eggs becomes too onerous, people will stop buying them.”

Mahrt is frustrated that local voters passed the proposition, given its possible affect on local egg producers.

“People vote one way, but speak from their pocketbook another way,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mahrt says that Petaluma Farms is weathering the current economic recession.

“Our production has been about the same — a little less than last year, due to the economy,” he said. “Obviously, things are different, but all in all, we're doing OK.

“We're still here.”

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)

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