By DAN WHEAT
A bill setting federal standards for the welfare of egg-laying hens will be reintroduced in the U.S. House before the end of April, an aide to Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., says.
Schrader and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsored companion bills in the last Congress requiring egg producers throughout the country to switch to larger cages for hens.
Schrader will reintroduce the Egg Product Inspection Act amendments next week or the week after and Feinstein likely will do the same, said Chris Huckleberry, legislative director for Schrader.
"We want to get them in before mark up on the Farm Bill, which the ag committees are talking about doing before the end of the month," Huckleberry said.
"I don't think the Republicans will let our bill be heard on the (House) floor. The one chance is an amendment and the most likely vehicle is the Farm Bill," he said.
The egg bills embody a 2011 agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers requiring phase-in of larger cages over 15 to 18 years at a cost the industry group has estimated at $4 billion. State laws would be nullified and new state laws or ballot measures regulating egg production would be prohibited.
The agreement averted costly ballot initiative fights in Washington and Oregon.
The Senate bill received a committee hearing in the last Congress, but the House bill did not because of opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, other meat and dairy groups and some animal welfare groups that are opposed to any cages.
The farm groups fear such legislation would set a precedent leading to national production and welfare standards for other livestock.
The bills pertain only to egg production and that will be emphasized this time with language specifically saying it does not affect other livestock, Huckleberry said.
UEP and USHS have renewed their agreement to work together for the legislation through this calendar year, said Mitch Head, UEP spokesman.
"UEP represents more than 90 percent of egg producers in the country and this is what our producers say they need in order to survive," Head said.
Half a dozen states have conflicting standards, which are becoming impossible for egg producers to navigate, he said.
UEP was under pressure of litigation and threat of ballot initiatives from HSUS before the agreement was reached.
"We wouldn't jump into other industries' fights so we hope they see this is our fight and has no impact on them," Head said.
Greg Satrum, vice president of Willamette Egg Farms, Portland, said while Oregon and Washington have adopted American Humane Association standards, egg producers would likely be in new battles with HSUS if a federal bill doesn't pass.
"We need a level playing field in the hen house in order to sustain local egg production," Satrum said.
Proposition 2 bans conventional hen cages and sow gestation stalls in California in less than 21 months, he noted.
The phase-out of gestation stalls over five to 10 years already is being demanded by many pork processors, distributors and retailers, most likely making gestation-stall legislation moot, he said.
The same buyers are not demanding a hen cage phase-out, so the problem is political and requires a political solution, he said.
"I hope animal ag groups will start communicating and respecting each others' unique challenges like we have done here in the Northwest," he said.