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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — A proposal to make New York the latest state with a "cage free" egg law is ruffling the feathers of the agriculture industry.

The legislation was quietly introduced by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, an animal rights activist who serves on the Assembly Agriculture Committee. She has pioneered legislation to ban the declawing of cats. She has also promoted a bill to ban the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits at pet stores.

Rosenthal, in an interview with CNHI, acknowledged she has already encountered "vehement" opposition to her proposal from poultry industry representatives.

But the legislation, she contended, reflects the ongoing evolution in the preferences of consumers, stating there is now an increased demand for foods from smaller local farms and heightened appetite for humane conditions for farm animals.

"It's really gross and stressful for them," she said of the practice of keeping egg-laying hens penned in small cages. "It's a bloody mess and it's unacceptable."

California, Michigan, Oregon and Washington have all passed laws that require all eggs sold to come from hens that are not confined to cages. A similar law put on the books by Massachusetts make no mention of cages, though its advocates say the statute amounts to a "cage-free" requirement.

A spokesman for the New York State Farm Bureau, a group that lobbies at the Albany statehouse on behalf of thousands of some 30,000 farmers, said Rosenthal's legislation would raise costs for egg producers at a time when the agriculture community is already under economic stress because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Steve Ammerman, the Farm Bureau spokesman, noted some farms have already moved to cage-free hens to meet recent changes in consumer demand.

"Animal care is a priority, and poultry producers need to have a healthy chicken in order to produce a quality egg," Ammerman said. "More regulation will only drive up the costs for farms and consumers."

According to federal data compiled in 2017, New York has an estimated 5.5 million egg-producing hens with a production value of $89 million.

If Rosenthal's bill becomes law, the ban would take effect two years after the legislation is signed. Ammerman noted it provides no assistance during the transition to help farmers "completely overhaul their farms in a short period of time."

Several major chains that stock groceries, including Walmart and Costco, have signaled that they will only carry cage-free eggs beginning by 2025.

Still, New York's supermarket lobby has no interest in seeing the proposed ban hatch.

Supermarkets across the state, said Michael Durant, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York, are already working with farmers to increase the supply of locally produced products at grocery stores.

"We need to understand that retailers are trying to source products locally before we start mandating things," Durant said. He also said the legislation would limit the choices of consumers.

Eggs from pastured hens are a popular item at the Cooperstown Farmers Market, said Ellen Pope, director of Otsego 2000, a community organization that oversees the market.

She called the Rosenthal bill "a step in the right direction," saying it will foster more humane practices at farms.

The proposed ban would also apply to eggs from turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea fowl. Further, it would ban the in-state sale of eggs in New York from caged birds from out-of-state producers.

"People want the eggs that they eat — if they eat eggs — to be ethically sourced," Rosenthal said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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