Voluntary measure would become mandatory under rule
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- In an effort to defuse the threat of a proposed cage-free ballot initiative, a pair of bills introduced in the Washington Legislature would establish minimum standards for commercial egg-laying operations.
Senate Bill 5487 is sponsored by almost every member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Economic Development. Its companion bill in the House, HB1813, also has bipartisan sponsorship.
The United Egg Producers guidelines, now voluntary, would become mandatory under the legislation. That program addresses such issues as hen space requirements, air quality, handling standards, hen treatment and facility requirements. United Egg Producers is the industry trade group.
Greg Satrum, president of the Northwest Poultry Council, said those standards have led to lower mortality rates and more production per hen.
The bills would also require any new cage systems built after the July 2012 effective date be "enriched colony housing" adhering to American Humane Association standards. Those systems provide 116 square inches per hen vs. 67 square inches in current systems.
A ballot initiative proposed by the Humane Society of the U.S. and Farm Sanctuary would require 216 square inches. If 241,153 registered voters sign petitions supporting the initiative by July 8, it will appear on the state's November general election ballot.
In California, an HSUS- and Farm Sanctuary-sponsored initiative was passed in 2008, requiring all whole eggs sold to be cage-free by 2015.
Kiasa Kuykendall, of Stiebrs Farms in Yelm, Wash., told the senators the HSUS asked her farm to go 100 percent cage-free. About 5 percent of her farm's eggs are from cage-free hens.
"Customers choose the best fit for their families," she said. "About 95 percent of the eggs sold in Washington are conventional (from caged hens). They're more economical. If we can't provide them, customers will go elsewhere.
"The proposed ban (on cages) would go against the customers. We would not survive," she said.
"People need an affordable source of protein, especially food-insecure families," Satrum said.
Jennifer Hillman, with HSUS, said the proposed legislation gives the illusion of reform, but instead codifies "existing cruel and inhumane conditions." Caged hens are more fearful, even in community cages, she said.
Dan Wood, of the Washington State Farm Bureau, said that argument is based on emotion and a lack of understanding. Caged chickens are provided not only feed and care, but also protection from predators.
Cage-free chickens, on the other hand, are exposed to weasels, skunks, foxes, feral dogs and eagles, Wood said. "And they're living without fear?"