On Tuesday, California residents voted to pass Proposition 12 — what some are hailing as the country’s most progressive animal welfare bill yet.

Led by the Humane Society, with support from more than 600 California veterinary clinics and 100 California farmers, the bill establishes a minimum space requirement for animals, including calves raised for veal, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens. Further, it bans the sale of produce from these animals when they are kept in areas that don’t meet the minimum square-feet requirements. Many major businesses are already on board with the cage-free egg movement: Many major food businesses, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’, have committed to transition to using only cage-free eggs in the coming years, Civil Eats reported.

“The passage of Proposition 12 is ground-breaking for the welfare of animals and has raised the bar at an important time in our consideration of what farm to table means in this country,” Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said in a statement. “Californians have resoundingly voted to acknowledge that further expanding the humane treatment of animals matters in our society and we applaud them.”

Cage-free eggs will soon be the standard

Prop 12 will outlaw cages for all laying hens, which will need to be replaced with either cage-free or outdoor housing systems, by 2022. In other words, cage-free eggs will be the only kind of eggs that can be sold in the state. The newly passed proposition is momentum built off California’s Prop 2, passed in 2008, which prohibited caging animals in a way that would prevent them from moving freely. The most recent bill is much more specific about space requirements, calling for 144 square inches of space per hen.

“Farm animals should not be crammed into a cage barely larger than their own body,” Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection of the Humane Society, told Capital Public Radio.

The move is not just good for the treatment of animals, but for the health of humans as well: Research shows that salmonella is less common on open farms than in caged facilities.

Opposition to the bill

While Prop 12 passed with more than 61`% of the vote, not all are in favor of the new legislation. It’s not surprising that bigger farm industry groups like the American Veal Association and the National Association of Egg Farmers were in opposition — they’ll have to update rules, regulations and facility practices, which will cost money. But certain animal welfare groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also did not support the bill.

Proponents and opponents of Prop 12
Image: Prevent Cruelty California

“PETA opposes Prop 12 because it’s a weak initiative that will allow farmers to confine hens to cages until 2022 and then cram them into warehouses with only one square foot of space each after that,” Ben Williamson, PETA’s senior international media director, said in an email. To PETA, the bill does not do enough to protect animals. Williamson said that the bill is misleading to consumers, because while “cage-free” implies room to roam, hens on cage-free farms “are typically packed by the thousands into sheds that have only a small opening at one end, so most of them never get to go outdoors.”

“We’re at a pivotal moment in the effort to give animals real protection by cutting out their exploitation altogether,” Williamson added. “Vegan foods are everywhere,” he said, noting an increase in interest for plant-based meats and non-dairy milks. “Prop 12 further perpetuates the “humane meat” and “happy egg” myth, which will extend the suffering of hens and other animals for many years to come.”

While Prop 12 proponents argue the bill is a win for animal welfare, moving the humane treatment of animals in the right direction, PETA affirms that the reforms only help the meat, dairy and egg industries, and would like to see the focus shifted to alternative education around meat consumption. “Imagine what progress could have been made by investing those funds in vegan egg products and educating consumers why they don’t need to consume eggs in the first place,” Williamson said.