Senate egg bill ruffles feathers

Jun 8, 2012

It seems the effort to legislate agriculture pleases no one. Non-ag consumers see a war of two equally oversimplified and unrealistic media characters. Ag producers see government attack on their freedom to conduct business as they see fit. Even animal rights groups are seeing red as they are entertainingly at each others’ throats for once.

What’s the issue? Eggs.

Specifically, government mandated conditions for laying hens. More specifically, S. 3239/H.R. 3798, the “Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012.”

Though H.R. 3798 has been around since January, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- CA, introduced the clone bill S. 3239 to the Senate in late May. The thrust of both bills is to codify larger, enriched cage conditions for laying hens and consumer labeling of eggs on a federal basis. The Senate version was recently introduced after the House version has languished in committee for over four months without any action taken.

The primary goals of the bills are to increase the amount of space per hen in laying cages to more than double current standards; “enrich” cages with features such as perches, dust bath areas, and nesting space; and codify labeling standards on consumer eggs based on the way in which laying hens were housed and treated.

Ag reaction

The controversy over the bill is coming from all sides and the range of complaints is vast. Everything from governmental overreach to the willful ignoring of voters’ past wishes has been brought up.

Though the bills have been backed by the United Egg Producers (UEP) and a number of state-specific egg, poultry or general agricultural groups, it is causing a stir in other ag sectors. Na tional

Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), Egg Farmers of America and many others see the bills as setting a dangerous precedent.

“This legislation creates a slippery slope,” said NCBA President J.D. Alexander of H.R. 3798 in an earlier press release. “Today, it’s egg farmers, but tomorrow it could be any other segment of animal agriculture and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Doug Wolf, president of NPPC, added similar thoughts on the House version of the bill.

“This one-size-fits-all farm takeover bill is government intrusion on family farms at its worst and is unnecessary. If enacted, it would open Pandora’s Box for special interest groups to pursue similar federal laws on pig farmers, dairy farmers and other family farming operations.”

In the most recent issue of NCBA’s Beltway Beef newsletter, NCBA’s executive director of legislative affairs, Kristina Butts, had a lot to say regarding the new Senate bill.

“We fully support any and all science-based advancements in animal welfare.

However, a federal mandate is not needed to accomplish production practices that secure the wellbeing of livestock.

“This legislation is a onesize-fits-all approach to animal welfare and is the wrong answer. In fact, the World Organization of Animal Health has even acknowledged mandated animal production practices are not in the best interest of promoting true animal welfare because they cannot easily be adapted or updated for different farming models. Prescriptive farming standards hinder efficient modifications as new science becomes available,” Butts said.

Both groups have also voiced concern over the in volvement of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), which was instrumental in the original agreement with UEP that spawned both bills.

“My biggest concern with H.R. 3798 is that outside groups with no knowledge of the industry will be dictating my livelihood and potentially compromising the welfare of my livestock,” said Alexander.

His NPPC counterpart voiced similar concerns.

It isn’t only ag voices concerned with HSUS’ hand in the bills. Entertainingly, the group’s support of the bills has stirred up other animal rights groups.

The Humane Farming Association (HFA)—a group which, despite its name, is not involved with farming but instead legislatively seeks to end “industrialized animal factories”—has loudly denounced HSUS for “endorsing the same egg factory cages it previously opposed.”

HFA has gotten some attention from the mainstream media for its 90-second “A Cage is a Cage” video.

Told from the perspective of a downtrodden puppet hen, the video claims the bills would lock laying hens away in cages forever and make the standard irreversible on the state level in violation of what it claims voters want.

Despite the video’s abjectly emotional appeal, most of its claims appear wholly unsubstantiated by the available text of the two bills. While it is true the bills, if passed, would codify standard cage requirements for laying hens, the bills in no way mandate that hens must be housed in cages.

Requirements of S. 3239

According to the text of S. 3239, laying cages must provide each brown hen a minimum of 144 square inches of floor space, and a minimum of 124 square inches for each white hen. The different requirements stem from size differences in the birds; brown laying breeds are typically bigger than white laying breeds.

The requirement of enrichment in the cages proposed in the bills includes “adequate perch space, dust bathing or scratching areas and nest space.” The proposed enriched cages— sometimes called colony systems—would allow laying hens more natural expression of their instinctual behaviors while still maintaining the benefits of enclosed systems, according to supporters.

The bills also include labeling requirements for consumers on eggs. S. 3239 requires that eggs be labeled according to the living conditions of the hens who laid them. Categories defined are: eggs from freerange hens, eggs from cagefree hens, eggs from enriched cages, and eggs from caged hens.

The “free-range” classification would define hens not in cages and with access to the outdoors. “Cage-free” hens are those who are not in cages, but in large communal enclosed houses. The “enriched cage” classification would describe the aforementioned cage requirements. And the “caged” classification would be for hens housed in current caged systems.

Other requirements for laying hen living conditions are also in the bill. They include, but are not limited to, air quality (particularly ammonia) standards and prohibition against forced molting.

Assuming the passage of one or the other of the bills, producers would have 15 years to meet the above requirements. Incremental requirements are also built into the bills as a sort of build-up move in the interim years. All requirements would not apply to “small producers,” i.e. those with 3,000 or fewer laying hens. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor