Is Proposition 2 the proverbial fox in the hen house or is it sound legislation? Calif-ornia voters will decide this ?industry-tipping? legislation on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, summarized by the California Attorney General?s Office, states its passage ?requires that an enclosure or tether confining specified farm animals allow the animals for the majority of every day to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up and turn around. Specified animals include calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs.? If passed, it becomes law in January 2015.

Third-generation Petaluma Farms egg producer Steve Mahrt, whose hens are cage-free, says it?s bad legislation. If passed, it will effectively ?shut down the California industry,? he said. Further, it will drive up the price to producers and consumers, and allow less-regulated, outside growers to undercut the market and dodge stringent California-based safety standards, he said.

Proponents argue the opposite, pointing to Arizona, Florida, Oregon and Colorado producers with laws already on the books. The results, said Prop. 2 campaign manager Jennifer Fearing, are expanding market operations and negligible costs because ?supporters know food quality and safety are enhanced by better farm practices.?

One issue both sides agree on: California is the battleground state in a campaign being waged by the Washing-ton, D.C-based Humane Society of the United States.

Statewide, egg producers are leading the opposition. In Northern California, no pig and sheep operators are in current violation of the draft legislation.

Taking chickens out of ?battery cages,? measuring 67 square inches of cage floor space, and giving them room to spread their wings is the equivalent of expecting crop farmers to occupy four acres in order to cultivate one, Mahrt said.

?This initiative isn?t about the treatment of farm animals,? said Julie Buchner, spokesperson for Californians for Safe Food, an anti-Prop. 2 group. ?It?s about housing requirements.?

Fearing and the Humane Society deny this, citing the law would not require room for all the chickens to spread their wings simultaneously. ?It does require they not be in cages, that they be cage-free indoors,? she said. ?It simply requires that birds be able to spread their wings.?

Both sides have their own projections for costs to the consumer.

Mahrt and Buchner said if Prop. 2 passes, the price of eggs will skyrocket. A study paid for by the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association estimated egg prices will inflate 76 percent as farmers retrofit and expand their operation to meet the cage-free environment.

Fearing quotes a study by a University of California, Davis economist in which the price-justified increase of cage-free operations is a penny an egg. Both Mahrt and Buchner call this data skewed, out-of-date and taken out of context.

?Californians are already reeling from high gas and food prices,? Buchner added. ?The last thing they need is higher prices for eggs.?

?Competitors in other states and Mexico won?t operate like that,? giving non-California producers a distinct cost advantage, Mahrt said.

Both sides are equally polarized on the issue of safety standards.

Buchner said cage-free birds come into contact with and lay eggs in their own feces, increasing the risk of salmonella contamination. There has been no salmonella case in California in over a decade because of current battery-cage operations, she said.

Fearing disagrees. ?Cram-ming tens of thousands of animals into tiny cages fosters the spread of animal diseases that may affect people,? she said.

Mahrt brought the hotly debated issue back to a single question: How do the majority of chickens fare in current cage environments?

?What?s (the significance of) an egg to a chicken?? Mahrt asked rhetorically. ?It?s how they reproduce. Nature?s pretty smart, and if chickens are stressed, psychologically or otherwise, they don?t lay eggs. You can?t ask how they?re feeling, but you can measure? their contentment by their production.

?It?s simply wrong to confine veal calves, breeding pigs and egg laying hens in tiny cages barely larger than their bodies,? countered Fearing.

For more information, log onto www.safecalifornia food.org for the anti-Prop. 2 arguments. Supporting the measure is the www.yesonprop2.com Web site.

(Contact Liz Watson at argus@arguscourier.com)