Editor’s note: On 6-19-2012, this post has been slightly revised to include new information.
An unusual partnership between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers has hatched new legislation that would modernize egg production and force giant egg companies to treat birds humanely.
“Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers have been traditional adversaries, to put it mildly,” HSUS spokesman Paul Shapiro told Cooking Up a Story. “We talk to our enemies regularly, but in this case they called us first.”
Shapiro said a little more than a year ago, the two opponents started working on legislation that would become Senate Bill 3239 and the identical House Bill 2798, ‘Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012.” The legislation would require egg producers to essentially double the space allotted per hen and make other important animal welfare improvements, Shapiro said.
“Many times [during negotiations], both sides believed it was over, but in the end we were able to find common ground on issues,” Shapiro said.
United Egg Producers, which represents 88 percent of egg producers, supports the bill in the face of estimates that pin the cost anywhere from $4 billion to $10 billion. United Egg Producers said on their pro-bill website, eggbill.com, that consumers might only pay a couple cents more a dozen, and that most of the impact will not be felt at the grocery store until the 2020’s.
Farmers are the ones who will bear most of the cost, including:
- Costs of constructing new hen houses at $20‐$24 per hen more than traditional housing, for a total of $1.6 billion more over the nine- to 15-year implementation of the bill.
- 9 percent higher labor costs.
- 4 percent higher feed consumption.
United Egg Producers spokesman Mitch Head told Cooking Up a Story that this legislation will even the playing field for egg companies who operate in more than one state, and reduce the workload involved in abiding by different local regulations.
“It makes more sense for everyone involved to have one national standard rather than a patchwork quilt of differing (and sometimes contradictory) egg production standards. That is what led egg farmers to try to work out a reasonable standard with HSUS,” Head said.
Egg farmers will also see increased production, which will partially offset costs. A study cited by United Egg Producers found that hens in a more pleasant environment had lower mortality rates (4.22 percent vs. 7.6 percent in a conventional cage), laid more eggs (421 per hen vs. 399) and laid bigger eggs (average case weight 49.4 lb. vs. 47.93 lb.).
Opposition to the bill is coming from several different fronts, including folks who feel this legislation will lock-in the use of chicken cages forever, and from those who are opposed to government regulation in general because they believe it interferes with the free market. The Humane Farming Association opposes this bill, which they say is a sham that will keep chickens trapped in cages forever, and argue that no “responsible” humane organization should support it.
Mindy Patterson, president of the right-leaning Calvary Group, blogged that the legislation will send egg prices to $8/dozen.
“At a time when jobs are scarce, and the looming possibility that affordable food may become more difficult to come by, now is not the time to stand by and allow an anti-egg-consuming animal rights organization to righteously dictate the future of U.S. egg producers and the future of our domestic food supply,” Patterson wrote on American Thinker.
The far more potent opposition is coming from beef and cattle producers, who fear this bill will open the floodgates. Shapiro said HSUS has reached out to try to garner a similar truce, but it’s been fruitless.
“They don’t like the precedent of anti-cruelty legislation on the federal level,” Shapiro said. “Their main priority is killing this bill.”
So Shapiro said anti-cruelty groups are working on making life better for pigs and cows through other means, like enacting laws on the state level in eight states, and getting big companies like Cracker Barrel and Wendys to publicly commit not to buy pork from farms that use gestation crates.
The Egg Products Inspection Acts were offered as amendments to the 2012 Farm Bill, and have also been introduced independently. The legislation faces a steep struggle if supporters are forced to pass it independently, Shapiro said, but has better chances if it remains stuck to the Farm Bill.
NOT ‘OLD MCDONALD’S FARM’
Shapiro said no one should fool themselves into thinking this bill is going to create “idyllic” conditions for birds.
“It won’t recreate Old McDonalds Farm,” Shapiro said. “It improves conditions for birds but it doesn’t create cruelty-free conditions.”
However, 90 percent of birds in the United States will see their situations get better, through the availability of nesting areas, which allow birds to lay eggs in privacy, and perches that will allow birds to behave more naturally.
“Of course we prefer for birds not to be in cages at all,” he said. “But it’s an improvement.”
Note: The Egg Products Inspection Act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), Sen. Richard Menendez (D-NJ), and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). The House bill was introduced by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and has more than 70 co-sponsors.
- Animal Rights Legislation Would Make Eggs a Luxury Food
- Track This Bill (Senate): S. 3239: Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012
- Track This Bill (House): H.R. 3798: Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012
- Senate Bill Introduced to Improve Housing for Egg-Laying Hens and Provide Stable Future for Egg Farmers
- Support the Egg Bill
- Pork producers urge Congress to reject HSUS’s “dangerous precedent” aimed at all livestock housing.
Melinda Tichelaar is the Community Manager for Food.Farmer.Earth, as well as a reporter for the Kenosha (Wisconsin) News and website/line producer for WFLD in Chicago. Melinda, her husband, and their three sons live happily on Lake Michigan in Kenosha, where they like to sail, bar-b-q, buy interesting eggs at the Farmers Market and sneak whole wheat flour into cookies when no one is looking.
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