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Wary of rotten egg deals

Published on July 15, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on August 12, 2011 8:38AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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The landmark agreement between egg producers and the Humane Society of the United States represents a cease-fire in the multistate battle over how chickens are treated.

By agreeing to seek federal legislation to set standards for the cages chickens live in, the United Egg Producers hope to end the series of high-dollar political campaigns that have moved from the Midwest to the West Coast. In California alone, the HSUS spent about $4 million on its successful Proposition 2 campaign.

As the HSUS gained ground, the egg producers found themselves in a defensive battle, seeking legislation at the state level aimed at addressing issues such as cage size. The prospect of having to do that in all 50 states -- and still face HSUS opposition -- was daunting to even the most ardent defenders of the industry.

At the same time, the HSUS hopes the deal will achieve a higher standard of treatment for the 280 million egg-laying chickens across the 50 states with a single piece of legislation.

That any agreement could be reached between the two political enemies is remarkable in itself. Not since the last round of Middle East peace talks have two parties with such starkly opposed positions been put in the same room.

As it now stands, the two sides are to be congratulated for replacing political warfare with diplomacy.

But, as is the case with all political compromises, other issues must also be considered.

Both the egg producers and the HSUS gave significant ground negotiating the deal.

The producers agreed to much larger cages for chickens despite its assertions that the current cages are adequate for maintaining the well-being of the chickens.

The HSUS, which earlier argued that any cages were unacceptable, now says larger cages are fine if it means all laying chickens will get more room.

And the fact that multimillion-dollar political battles would no longer be needed makes the compromises even more acceptable.

Other livestock producers, however, aren't so sure. They see it as opening the door to federal regulation of all animal welfare.

"We oppose federal legislation that dictates on-farm production practices. Even if it only applies to the egg industry, the legislation would serve as a precedent and easily could be amended to include other species," National Pork Producers Council spokesman David Warner told Capital Press reporter Dan Wheat.

If the egg industry and HSUS wanted to adopt best practices addressing cage size, that would be fine, the pork producers argue. But to seek federal law that would lock in all producers on all scales to the same standards represents the first time Congress has gotten into the business of regulating farms in areas other than food safety and environmental concerns, they said.

They have a point. Once Congress sets the standards for chicken cages, will laws specifying how hogs, cattle, sheep, goats and any other livestock be far behind?

And what assurance does any livestock producer have that once those standards are set Congress won't tighten them in the future?

Those are two questions livestock producers would like addressed before they join the celebration over the egg agreement.


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