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Push for national chicken cage standards stalls

California's 2008 Prop 2 mandating more space for egg-laying hens is going into effect but federal hen welfare legislation seems dead.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on January 2, 2015 4:57PM

Last changed on January 5, 2015 2:39PM

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press file
Greg Satrum, co-owner of Willamette Egg Farms, is shown in a free range hen facility in Canby, Ore. A California law now requires that all whole eggs sold in that state meet the specifications of Proposition 2, which says that hens must be able to flap their wings without interfering with one another.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press file Greg Satrum, co-owner of Willamette Egg Farms, is shown in a free range hen facility in Canby, Ore. A California law now requires that all whole eggs sold in that state meet the specifications of Proposition 2, which says that hens must be able to flap their wings without interfering with one another.

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California begins implementing Proposition 2, requiring more space for egg-laying hens, in 2015, but the move for a national standard appears dead.

Prop 2, passed by voters in 2008, requires egg-laying hens have enough room to spread their wings without touching the side of an enclosure or another hen.

Some producers have met that standard but say the cost of eggs is expected to rise. The president and CEO of United Egg Producers, Chad Gregory, has previously speculated it could cause an egg shortage.

UEP represents about 90 percent of the egg producers in the United States. It entered into an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States in 2011 seeking federal standards for greater space for egg-laying hens. The agreement ended years of battle between the two groups and stopped HSUS initiative efforts in Washington and Oregon for cage-free facilities. Subsequent state laws moved toward enriched colony cages, affording more room per hen.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced federal bills in 2012 and 2013 giving hens more space. The bills were successfully opposed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and other meat, dairy and poultry groups, which feared a precedent leading to national production and welfare standards for other livestock.

The agreement between UEP and HSUS expired at the end of 2013. Both sides acted in good faith as if the agreement were continuing while seeking to get their leglislation into the Farm Bill in 2014. When that didn’t work neither side wanted to continue the agreement without legislation, Gregory said.

UEP and HSUS still talk to each other but are no longer pursing joint legislation, he said.

Six states unsuccessfully sued California over its law, AB 1437, passed in 2010 requiring all shell (whole) eggs sold in California to comply with Prop 2 by 2015.

The lack of federal legislation leaves uneven competition between states and UEP is still evaluating how to address that, Gregory said.

HSUS unsuccessfully tried to get a cage-free bill passed in Massachusetts in 2014 and is now focused on getting retailers to require cage-free eggs, said Paul Shapiro, HSUS vice president of farm animal protection.

“That’s how we’re trying to move the industry to cage-free conditions,” he said.

Burger King, Whole Foods, Starbucks and food service companies Compass Group and Aramark have made cage-free commitments, according to the HSUS website.

“We are not surprised they have gone back to their original agenda of cage-free. But in my opinion their stance isn’t all that strong when for two to three years they publicly endorsed enriched colony cages,” Gregory said.

Greg Satrum, co-owner of Willamette Egg Farms, said probably only a limited number of retailers will commit to cage-free eggs because “the market is very price-conscious and it will always be that way.” An egg shortage is possible, he said.

Northwest egg producers are moving toward enriched colony cages of 116 square inches per hen in accordance with new Oregon and Washington laws, Satrum said. Willamette Farms also has some cage-free facilities and is well positioned to meet market demands, he said.

Enriched colony cages retain automation of hen care, which is a savings to the producer over cage-free, he said.

Willamette serves the Pacific Northwest, northern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan from facilities in Canby, Ore., and Moses Lake, Wash.

The industry standard with traditional battery cages is 67 square inches per white hen and 78 square inches for brown hens, Wayne Pacelle, president of HSUS, has said. About 10 to 20 percent of the industry falls below that at 48 to 52 square inches, he said. The UEP-HSUS federal bills had sought to phase in 124 square inches per hen over 15 years at a UEP-estimated cost of $4 billion.

Hens vary in size but many experts believe Prop 2 requires about 200 square inches of space per hen, Shapiro said.

The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply is expected to release research results in March on egg production systems that will be favorable to enriched colony production, Satrum said. The coalition includes egg producers, UEP, retailers, universities and the American Humane Association.



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