On May 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a 2018 California law, Proposition 12, which banned the sale of certain animal products that did not meet minimum welfare standards. Especially now that such ballot initiatives have withstood legal challenges, a relevant question we might ask is: how cost-effective were initiatives like Proposition 12 at reducing farmed animal suffering?
Below is the executive summary of a report I wrote for Rethink Priorities analyzing the cost-effectiveness of not just Proposition 12, but also three other historical animal welfare ballot initiatives in the United States. In this report, I also compared the results to the cost-effectiveness of corporate campaigns. The full report is viewable here with a detailed discussion of the methodology and results.
In this report, I estimated the impact and cost-effectiveness of four historical United States ballot initiatives that either restricted the use of common animal confinement methods (including extremely confining stalls and tethering for veal calves, extremely confining gestation crates for breeding sows, and conventional cages for egg-laying hens), set minimum per-animal space requirements, and/or mandated cage-free systems for egg-laying hens. These initiatives are Arizona Proposition 204 (2006), California Proposition 2 (2008), Massachusetts Question 3 (2016), and California Proposition 12 (2018).
The three metrics of impact I estimated were:
- The number of years of improved animal welfare produced per dollar spent passing the initiatives for three animal types (veal calves, breeding sows, and egg-laying hens);
- The estimated years of disabling pain-equivalent suffering alleviated per dollar for veal calves, breeding sows, and egg-laying hens; and
- The relative years of improved hen welfare and disabling pain-equivalent suffering avoided per dollar per year of counterfactual impact compared to corporate cage-free campaigns, rated using an equivalent metric.
I estimated these metrics by building a Monte Carlo model in Causal that used data on state population sizes, per-capita animal product consumption, state animal populations, and campaign fundraising amounts to estimate the number of animals whose quality of life was improved over the first four years in which the ballot initiatives were in place. In addition, for egg-laying hens specifically, I used data from the Welfare Footprint Project to estimate the years of suffering alleviated by the transition away from conventional cages for the ballot initiatives that included egg-laying hens (Welfare Footprint Project). Finally, I compared the per-dollar years of improved welfare generated and suffering avoided by ballot initiatives to that accomplished by corporate campaigns, using cost-effectiveness estimates from Saulius Šimčikas, the estimated number of animals whose lives were improved, and the Welfare Footprint data.
The key takeaways are:
- Among all species, about 5.0 years of animal life were improved per dollar spent (with a 90-percentile range between 3.9 and 6.4 years per dollar). This translates into approximately 0.10 years of suffering avoided per dollar spent on all four ballot initiatives, with a 90-percentile range from 0.05 years per dollar to 0.14 years per dollar.
- Helping egg-laying hens is, by far, the most impactful farmed animal welfare reform.
- Nearly all (about 99%) of the reductions in farmed-animal suffering by these four initiatives can be attributed to bans on battery cages and/or cage-free requirements.
- The three initiatives that impacted egg-laying hens were approximately two orders of magnitude more cost-effective than Arizona Proposition 204, which impacted only veal calves and breeding sows.
- Ballot initiatives that covered all animal products sold in the state were probably more cost-effective than those which only applied to domestic animals, but this finding is uncertain.
- Keeping costs constant, assuming demand for eggs is price inelastic, and adjusting for differential productivity of cage-free and caged hens, requiring cage-free aviaries wasn’t statistically significantly better than banning conventional cages (and permitting enriched cages), according to a hypothetical example using Massachusetts Question 3 data.
- Ballot initiatives were less cost-effective but still competitive with corporate cage-free campaigns, even when they only targeted domestic production and allowed enriched cages.
- In terms of the number of hen-years improved per dollar per year of impact, the three ballot initiatives studied were about 21% to 81% as cost-effective as corporate cage-free campaigns are, with a mean estimate of 44% as cost-effective. Historical ballot initiatives studied improved an estimated 1.3 (1.0 to 1.7) years of life for egg-laying hens per dollar per year of impact, whereas corporate campaigns improved an estimated 3.5 (1.7 to 6.2) years of life per dollar spent per year of impact (based partially on Šimčikas 2019). Moreover, because ballot initiatives apply to all eggs produced in a state (whether consumed at home or at a restaurant), and if corporate campaigns face quicker diminishing marginal returns, future ballot initiatives may have a larger scale and cost-effectiveness than that which was measured here.
- In terms of years of suffering per year of impact, the three ballot initiatives that affected egg-laying hens were about 25% as cost-effective (11% to 47%) in terms of years of suffering per year of impact as were historical cage-free corporate campaigns. I estimate that historical ballot initiatives averted 0.025 (0.014 to 0.038) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact, compared to 0.12 (0.05 to 0.23) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact for corporate campaigns.
- Even California Proposition 2, which permitted enriched cages and only targeted domestic production, was estimated to have been 21% (8% to 40%) as cost-effective at reducing suffering as corporate cage-free campaigns per year of impact. Even assuming imperfect compliance, the initiative is estimated to have reduced 0.02 (0.013 to 0.027) years of disabling-equivalent suffering per dollar per year of impact. Part of the high impact, relative to the other ballot initiatives, likely comes from the fact that when California Proposition 2 was implemented, the proportion of hens who were cage-free was much lower than it was when the other initiatives were implemented. Nevertheless, this style of initiative may be more politically feasible than cage-free mandates in states with high egg production but which are more conservative than California.
As with any back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are several limitations that may reduce the accuracy of my estimated cost-effectiveness analysis (Šimčikas 2019). I list these below.
Limitations that would likely decrease the cost-effectiveness of these ballot initiatives:
- The counterfactual of passing a law might be even more cost-effective than ballot initiatives.
- The aggregated estimates do not include the interactions that ballot initiatives have with legislative and regulatory actions or corporate campaigns.
- The sample size is four initiatives–and all of them passed.
- Volunteer time and legal fees are not included as costs of an initiative.
Limitations that would likely increase the cost-effectiveness of these ballot initiatives:
- My definition of “suffering” as pain fitting the criteria of “Disabling pain” used by the Welfare Footprint Project is fairly strict–looser definitions could lead to large increases in the estimated cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives.
- The assumed proportion of veal calves living in extremely confining stalls relies on one report from one industry group.
- The number of years of counterfactual credit to give an initiative is difficult to assess, and the cost-effectiveness is non-linearly related to speed-up time.
- I assume that the demand for eggs is inelastic, but if welfare requirements lead to higher prices and lower quantities of eggs sold, then the number of additional hens required to produce the market equilibrium quantity of eggs following a transition to cage-free housing would be lower than that which is assumed here.
Limitations with an unknown effect on the generalizability and accuracy of these results to the cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives more broadly:
- We omitted indirect effects of the ballot initiatives, outside of the individual animals helped.
- The Welfare Footprint Project model assumes pain from different causes can be experienced in an additive way when they are simultaneously present.
- There were a lot of variables, and some are based on guesses.
- I assume that hens, veal calves, and breeding sows are equal in terms of capacity to suffer.
- The analysis only includes three types of animals.
- Low-hanging fruit (easy-to-pass ballot initiatives) may be picked–or not, depending on your counterfactual.
- I assume that there is incomplete-yet-high compliance with the ballot initiatives among in-state producers and incomplete accuracy in restricting imports to welfare-compliant products. If this assumption is inaccurate, the cost-effectiveness will change.
Purpose and Background
Twenty-four of the fifty United States allow citizens to put forth and vote directly on statutes and/or state constitutional amendments they would like to see passed. Such proposals are called ballot initiatives which, since their origination in South Dakota in 1898, have been used numerous times to protect the conservation status and welfare of wild and domesticated animals (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022).
This report estimates the cost-effectiveness of historical ballot initiatives targeting farmed animal welfare. Though I hope that the results are relevant for designers of and advocates for future ballot initiative campaigns, the extrapolation from these results to future ballot initiatives may not be appropriate.
The four initiatives studied are Arizona Proposition 204, California Proposition 2, Massachusetts Question 3, and California Proposition 12. I give a brief overview of each in the following four sections.
Arizona Proposition 204
The Arizona Humane Farms initiative–henceforth called Arizona Proposition 204–was passed in 2006 with 62% of the vote and came into full effect starting January 1, 2012. The initiative made it a “class 1 misdemeanor to tether or confine a pig during pregnancy or a calf raised for veal on a farm for all or the majority of a day in a manner that prevents the animal from lying down and fully extending its limbs or turning around freely” within Arizona borders (Ballotpedia). The mechanism for enforcement is unclear; no state funds were to be spent unless a court found it necessary to do so (Brewer, 2006).
The initiative had exceptions for the treatment of such animals for veterinary purposes, rodeos, transportation, slaughter, the seven-day period before the pig was expected to give birth and research purposes (Ballotpedia). (Throughout this report, I assume these exceptions make up a very small portion of a typical breeding sow’s lifespan and thus ignore them for simplicity). It is important to note that the use of traditionally industry-preferred housing arrangements–individual stalls for veal calves and gestation crates for pigs–was not banned by Arizona Proposition 204. However, the requirement that veal calves and breeding sows have sufficient space to move about their enclosures and lie down may significantly alleviate the pain that occurs from extremely confining individual stalls and gestation crates.
The text of Arizona Proposition 204 is available here (Brewer, 2006).
California Proposition 2
Similar to Arizona Proposition 204, California Proposition 2 (passed in 2008) banned the confinement of in-state veal calves and breeding sows in housing that prevents them from lying down, turning around, stretching their limbs, and standing up. However, California Proposition 2 also extended these protections to egg-laying hens, the vast majority of whom in caged systems are allotted space smaller than a piece of paper. There are exceptions for “transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary purposes” (UC Hastings Scholarship Repository). The initiative imposed penalties of a misdemeanor, a $1000 fine, and/or up to 180 days in jail for knowingly violating the welfare requirements (Ballotpedia). Local law enforcement was in charge of enforcement. However, the initiative did not mandate routine inspections so law enforcement would need to rely on reports of animal welfare law violations (Khokha, 2015). The initiative was passed in 2008 with over 63% of the vote, and its provisions took effect in 2015 (Ballotpedia).
Importantly, the initiative’s egg-laying hen reforms were not a cage-free mandate; rather, the initiative banned the space conditions associated with conventional cages but still permitted cages similar to the roomier “enriched” cages present in Europe. Such enriched cages contain “a nesting area, litter, and more space for hens to move around” (Sarfas, 2021). Proposition 2 did not require the nesting area, litter, or perches, but the increase in required space per hen marked a significant departure from conventional cages. Throughout this report, I assume that California Proposition 2’s reforms are most similar to a mandate that allows either enriched or cage-free housing but bans conventional cages.
The text of California Proposition 2 is available on page 16 of this document (UC Hastings Scholarship Repository).
Massachusetts Question 3
Similar to California Proposition 2, Massachusetts Question 3 (passed in 2016) bans “any farm owner or operator from knowingly confining any breeding pig, calf raised for veal, or egg-laying hen in a way that prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely” (Ballotpedia). Furthermore, egg-laying hens were required to have access to at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Massachusetts Question 3 applied only to whole eggs and uncooked veal and pork, and I attempt to control for the latter exception in the analysis below (Ballotpedia). Additionally, Massachusetts Question 3 also stated that:
“The proposed law’s confinement prohibitions would not apply during transportation; state and county fair exhibitions; 4-H programs; slaughter in compliance with applicable laws and regulations; medical research; veterinary exams, testing, treatment and operation if performed under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian; five days prior to a pregnant pig’s expected date of giving birth; any day that pig is nursing piglets; and for temporary periods for animal husbandry purposes not to exceed six hours in any twenty-four hour period” (Ballotpedia).
These conditions, I assume, are either negligible in comparison to the length of animals’ confinement and/or apply to a small fraction of animals in the state. Violations of the law would result in a fine of up to $1000. The Attorney General is in charge of enforcing the law and could issue regulations to aid in implementing it (Ballotpedia).
In contrast to California Proposition 2 and Arizona Proposition 204, however, the minimum space requirements also applied to out-of-state producers. Specifically, the ballot summary states:
“The proposed law would also prohibit any business owner or operator in Massachusetts from selling whole eggs intended for human consumption or any uncooked cut of veal or pork if the business owner or operator knows or should know that the hen, breeding pig, or veal calf that produced these products was confined in a manner prohibited by the proposed law” (Ballotpedia, bold added).
As such, it marked the first time a farm animal welfare ballot initiative in the United States extended to all qualifying goods sold in the state.
Massachusetts Question 3 was passed with nearly 78% of the vote and was set to take effect on January 1, 2022. In late 2021, the state legislature and governor enacted a law that delayed the start date of Massachusetts Question 3 by 7.5 months but also strengthened the egg-laying hen protections to explicitly require cage-free housing and cover liquid eggs. As part of this law, a compromise was made such that multi-tiered aviaries (which allow birds to access greater vertical space) only had to provide one square foot of space per bird, as opposed to the 1.5 feet required for single-tiered systems (Lisinski, 2021). Hereafter, I assume that single-tiered aviaries and multi-tiered aviaries both produce welfare improvements on par with those accompanying the transition from battery cages to cage-free systems as documented by the Welfare Footprint Project (Welfare Footprint Project).
In August 2022, a petition for injunctive relief regarding the pork standards made by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association against Massachusetts was temporarily granted pending the outcome of the lawsuit at the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) involving California Proposition 12 (Ballotpedia). However, on May 11, 2023, SCOTUS upheld California’s ability to ban the sale of pork produced using non-compliant housing (Raymond 2023). In this report, I estimate the cost-effectiveness of Massachusetts Question 3 under the assumption that the pork standards in the ballot initiative will take effect, as they already have for egg-laying hens and veal calves (Eyink and Lovells, 2022).
California Proposition 12
The final ballot initiative I considered is California Proposition 12, which was passed in 2018 with approximately 63% of voters’ approval. Like Massachusetts Question 3, its provisions extended to all goods sold in the state except meat that was part of a prepared food item. There were also carve-outs for confinement during transportation; medical research; veterinary exams and treatment; rodeos, 4-H, and fairs; slaughter; the five-day period before giving birth and while nursing (for breeding sows); and brief periods limited to six hours per day and a maximum of one day per month for animal husbandry reasons. Violations are misdemeanors and punishable by fines up to $1000 and/or jail time up to 180 days (Ballotpedia).
Unlike the prior initiatives, California Proposition 12 was unique in its explicit establishment of space minima. Starting in 2020, the initiative mandated that all veal sold come from calves who had at least 43 square feet of floor space apiece and that all eggs sold come from hens with at least 144 square inches of space. Further, in 2022, all pork sold had to come from pigs whose mothers had at least 24 square feet of space, and all eggs sold would have to be from hens living in enclosures compliant with the United Egg Producers’ cage-free guidelines (Ballotpedia). The cage-free guidelines not only mandate that hens have at least 1 to 1.5 square feet of space, but also that hens “are free to roam unrestricted; are provided enrichments that allow them to exhibit natural behaviors, including, at a minimum, scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas” (Shankar, 2017). Moreover, unlike Proposition 2, California Proposition 12 was enforced by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health, rather than local law enforcement, and these agencies could issue rules and regulations to assist in the enforcement of Proposition 12 (Ballotpedia).
In 2019, the National Pork Producers Council (NPCC) sued California over Proposition 12’s application of its pork standards to all whole pork sold in the state. They alleged that the effects on out-of-state producers constitute a violation of the United States Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause (which allows the U.S. Congress to regulate interstate commerce) and the “dormant” Commerce Clause (which prohibits states from regulating other states’ behavior) recognized by past Supreme Court rulings. The case was dismissed at the district court level, and the Ninth Circuit ruled against the NPCC in July 2021. The NPCC appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court heard oral arguments on October 11, 2022 (Ballotpedia). On May 11th, 2023, SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 12 (Raymond 2023), paving the way for California’s pork standards to finally take effect. In this analysis, I estimate the cost-effectiveness of the minimum space requirements under the assumption they’ll eventually take effect.
Brief Methodological Overview
In this report, I estimated the cost-effectiveness of the four historical farmed animal welfare ballot initiatives in terms of
- The number of years lived by animals whose welfare was improved per dollar spent on passing the initiatives;
- The estimated years of suffering alleviated per dollar; and
- The relative number of hen-years improved and years of suffering avoided per dollar spent per year of impact compared to corporate cage-free campaigns, rated using an equivalent metric.
I used Causal to design the model, and I included confidence intervals on most inputs to represent the uncertainty in my estimates. The model is available here, and the remaining sections of this report describe line-by-line the variables used and calculations made in this model, as well as the justifications for and limits of my choices. The final results are included in the “Overall Cost-Effectiveness” sections of this report and the model.
The general methodology I used to estimate the per-dollar number of animal years improved by each initiative included 1) identifying ballot initiatives for which campaign finance information was available, and 2) using agricultural and population data to estimate the number of animal years improved.
Once I estimated the number of animal years improved by an initiative, I then converted the result into an estimate of the years of animal suffering alleviated per dollar spent on the initiatives. For egg-laying hens, I used estimates from the Welfare Footprint Project on the number of hours of four kinds of pain a typical hen endures during her lifetime, based on the type of housing she lives in (Welfare Footprint Project). I weighted each type of pain to aggregate the time in pain into a single metric of time spent suffering. For veal calves and breeding sows, I used the proportion of an egg-laying hen’s life spent suffering if she is in a conventional cage as a benchmark for the proportion of veal calves and breeding sows’ lives spent in suffering.
Upon finding that reductions in egg-laying hen suffering contribute over 99% of the estimated impact, I used Saulius Šimčikas’ estimated number of animal years affected per dollar spent on corporate campaigns (Šimčikas, 2019) and the same Welfare Footprint Project data to compare historical ballot initiatives to this highly successful animal welfare reform.
This research is a project of Rethink Priorities. It was written by Laura Duffy. For help at many different stages of this project, thanks to Marcus A. Davis and William McAuliffe. If you’re interested in RP’s work, you can learn more by visiting our research database. For regular updates, please consider subscribing to our newsletter.
In the rest of the report, I use the short-hand “ballot initiatives” to refer to initiatives that mandate these animal welfare improvements.
Hereafter, I use the phrase “suffering” as a short-hand for “suffering that is equivalent to disabling pain as defined by the Welfare Footprint Project,” or disabling-equivalent suffering.
Corporate campaigns occur when advocates for a social cause (in this case, cage-free eggs) use coordinated pressure tactics to get corporations to change an aspect of their production process.
Two other states, New Mexico and Maryland, allow citizens to put forth only “veto referenda,” which can overrule an act that was passed into law. Veto referenda do not allow citizens to implement their own statutes or amendments, but serve rather as a “yes/no” vote on an act of the government (Ballotpedia).
The model re-runs each time the page is loaded or refreshed, so the numbers in this report may differ slightly from those in each iteration of the model.