President's message: Vote no on Proposition 12

Issue Date: October 31, 2018
By Jamie Johansson
Jamie Johansson

Good intentions can lead to bad policy—especially when voters' good intentions are manipulated by activist groups with an ax to grind and enforced by trial lawyers hoping to hop on the sue-and-settle gravy train. That's what California voters face with Proposition 12, the animal-housing initiative on the November ballot.

First, the good intentions: Everyone agrees farm animals should be treated with care. There's no debate there. All animals, on farms and as pets, should be treated well. This is the most basic tenet for any farmer or person associated with agriculture.

The broader issue is who—farmers and veterinarians, state regulatory agencies, university experts or animal rights organizations—ultimately defines acceptable welfare standards in production agriculture. The ultimate question is, should standards of care be decided at the ballot box and in attorneys' offices?

Activists first took advantage of voters' good intentions 10 years ago, when they successfully sponsored Proposition 2. It requires California farmers to provide more space to chickens, veal calves and hogs. The initiative prohibited California farmers from housing pregnant pigs, veal calves and egg-laying hens in a manner that "does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs."

The California Farm Bureau Federation, other statewide farm groups and the broader business community all opposed Proposition 2. We argued that the measure would reduce California egg production in particular and lead to higher prices.

Those predictions turned out to have been accurate.

About a year ago, Purdue University released a study analyzing the impact of Proposition 2 on California egg production and prices. Findings from the study show that California egg production dropped about 35 percent in the time since Proposition 2 took full effect, while retail egg prices paid by Californians increased as much as 33 percent.

But the activists aren't satisfied. They have qualified Proposition 12 for the Nov. 6 ballot. It would establish new, more-specific housing standards for egg-laying hens, veal calves and breeding sows. In addition, it would ban in California the sale of egg and meat products that do not adhere to those standards. This sales ban would apply both to products from animals raised in California and those imported from out of state.

And, there's this big difference, which hasn't gotten much attention:

Whereas Proposition 2 has been enforced by a state agency, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Proposition 12 would allow private attorneys to enforce its provisions through lawsuits. What that means is that lawyers who think they see a violation of the measure could sue farmers, farmers markets, grocery stores or food stands.

Similar "private rights of action" have allowed unscrupulous lawyers to shake down thousands of small businesses by filing drive-by lawsuits. These suits often force business owners either to pay a settlement—a ransom, really—or to incur devastating legal fees. On many occasions, businesses have simply closed rather than face either outcome.

If Proposition 12 passes, you can expect more of these shakedowns.

The irony is that the initiative wouldn't necessarily accomplish what well-intentioned voters might hope.

A study conducted by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply demonstrated that cage-free production, as mandated by Proposition 12, has significant drawbacks. The study concluded that not only was cage-free the most expensive in terms of egg production costs but also led to higher levels of bird mortality, the highest feed usage—and thereby largest carbon footprint—and other concerns.

Again, it's important to stress that California egg farmers, CFBF and other agricultural organizations share a goal of assuring animal welfare, food safety and food affordability. Egg farmers around the state have already invested more than $200 million to upgrade facilities in order to comply with Proposition 2.

But, as I said when CFBF announced its opposition to Proposition 12, all the new measure would do is allow trial lawyers to file predatory lawsuits against egg farmers, who provide some of the healthiest food on the planet. And Proposition 12 would push egg prices higher in the state that already suffers from the nation's highest poverty rate.

Farm Bureau urges Californians to vote no on Proposition 12.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.