Egg deal ends costly battles
Once rivals, groups will press for federal laws on hen housing
By DAN WHEAT
The Humane Society of the United States says it won't lobby for additional restrictions if new standards for egg-laying hens it has negotiated with United Egg Producers are passed as federal law.
The proposal would require egg producers to phase in cages giving hens 124 to 144 square inches over the next 15 to 18 years at an estimated cost of $4 billion. Most of the 280 million egg-laying hens now live in cages giving each 67 square inches of space. Roughly 50 million have 48 square inches.
Focused on deal
HSUS is focused on getting its agreement with United Egg Producers enacted into law and is not going to come back afterward seeking greater restrictions, said Paul Shapiro, senior director of HSUS's Factory Farming Campaign.
"No one knows what will happen in 15 years, but you won't see either group try to modify it in the near future if we get it enacted," Shapiro said.
Other animal welfare groups, such as Farm Sanctuary, are not part of the agreement but are not likely to lobby for greater restrictions either, Shapiro said.
"Right now we're just looking at this agreement and supporting it and currently have no plans to push anything else," said Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary. "It is a reasonable compromise but not as much as we would like."
The group opposes colony cages.
"We don't think they provide good hen welfare but they are better than (current) barren battery cages so they are a step in the right direction," he said.
Farm Sanctuary will actively work to get the UEP-HSUS agreement enacted, he said.
This is the sixth agreement HSUS has reached with ag groups on policies and it has not sought greater restrictions after reaching those agreements, Shapiro said. Those agreements were in Michigan, Colorado, Maine, Ohio and California and involved veal and pork, he said.
UEP and HSUS are now working to find congressional sponsors for the legislation in hopes of passing a bill before the current Congress wraps up at the end of 2012.
HSUS will continue advocating that consumers and corporations switch to cage-free eggs. The agreement's new labeling system will give consumers information they need to reach for higher animal welfare standards, Shapiro said.
United Egg Producers will work equally hard with HSUS for passage of a bill, said Mitch Head, UEP spokesman.
If passed into law it would be the first time any species of farm animal has federal protection and would be the first federal farm animal protection law in more than 30 years, Shapiro said.
HSUS and UEP announced an agreement July 7, signaling a truce after more than 10 years of battles in courts, legislatures and through initiative campaigns, Head said.
The groups agreed to work jointly for federal legislation for new standards on housing most of the 280 million egg-laying hens in the nation. In return, HSUS agreed to drop its ballot initiative efforts in Washington, Oregon and not begin new initiatives in other states. Both sides have agreed not to instigate new lawsuits against each other and none are pending.
The agreement was announced just one day before HSUS and Washingtonians for Humane Farms planned to submit more than 355,000 voter signatures to get a cage-free initiative on Washington's Nov. 8 general election ballot.
An initiative was planned in Oregon for next year.
"America's egg producers have continually worked to improve animal welfare and we strongly believe our commitment to a national standard for hen welfare is in the best interest of our animals, customers and consumers," UEP chairman Bob Krouse said in a joint press release with HSUS. A national standard is better than a "patchwork of state laws" that would be cumbersome and confusing to customers and consumers.
"Passing this bill would be an historic improvement for hundreds of millions of animals per year," HSUS president Wayne Pacelle said in the release.
He thanked producers for agreeing to invest in "meaningful" improvements in hen housing.
The legislation would supersede state laws in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio and those passed this spring in Washington and Oregon.
The groups also note Proposition 2, which was passed by California voters in 2008. UEP and HSUS will ask Congress to require California egg producers to eliminate conventional cages for their 20 million laying hens by 2015, the date the proposition was to go into effect. All hens will be provided with space and environmental improvements other states will phase in over the next 15 to 18 years.
These requirements would apply to the sale of all eggs and egg products in California.
"I think it's great. This is a huge step in pursuing a uniform national standard," said Greg Satrum, president of the Northwest Poultry Council and vice president of Willamette Egg Farms, Canby, Ore., a major producer in Oregon and Washington.
"Having UEP and HSUS in agreement on a standard is a huge landmark," he said. His father, Gordon Satrum, is on the UEP board.
Satrum said if passed, Washington Initiative 1130 would have virtually mandated cage-free housing, jeopardizing the industry.
The federal proposal doesn't go that far but requires enriched colony cages, which offer a bit more room per hen than legislation passed this year in Washington and Oregon, he said.
It is a sustainable system the industry can live with, he said, but he thinks the estimated $4 billion price tag is low.
"In just looking at our own experience with building costs, we're estimating it will cost our company in the neighborhood of $50 million over the next 15 to 18 years," he said.
Asked if that's affordable, he said, "I hope so."
European research shows an 8 to 10 percent increase in production costs in moving from conventional to colony cages and a 25 to 40 percent increase going from conventional to cage-free, Satrum said.
Consumers will see an increase in retail egg prices with colony systems but not nearly as much as with cage-free, he said.
The national proposal gives producers more time to transition and provides uniformity, preventing market disruptions, production imbalances among regions of the country and lessens the chance of greater reliance on eggs imported from other countries, Satrum said.
Although HSUS opposes cages, Shapiro said the organization agreed to the enriched colony cages because the proposal would extend restrictions to states the group might otherwise lack political options.
"Most hens are in states that don't even have ballot initiatives," Shapiro said. "Of course we prefer cage-free, but this is an improvement for all birds not just a state or two."
The agreement was a compromise with both sides giving "more than a little," he said.
There are people on both sides of the issue who are unhappy, from fellow livestock producers fearing a precedent that will harm them to some animal welfare groups disappointed HSUS "caved" on its demands for cage-free egg production, Head said.
"We've been political adversaries for some time and that we came together and found common ground speaks volumes to the importance of this (proposed) legislation," Shapiro said.
Small producers probably will be exempt from the legislation. Producers with fewer than 3,000 hens were exempted from new FDA egg food safety standards a year ago, Head said.
UEP represents 200 commercial egg farms and about 85 percent of national production, Head said.
Satrum's Willamette Egg Farms has 2 million hens in Oregon and Washington. There are hardly any producers between 3,000 and 300,000 hens, Satrum said.
Dynes Farms, in Burlington, Wash., has 250,000 hens. Sales manager David Dynes said he likes that the playing field will be leveled but otherwise dislikes that producers will be required to convert to less efficient systems for more money.
"It goes against good old-fashioned capitalism. It's doing less for more," he said.
Jon Stiebrs, owner of Stiebrs Farms in Yelm, Wash., with 400,000 hens, said he supports the deal because it's achievable and allows interstate commerce. He said he's 60 percent cage-free and moving in that direction.
The East and West coasts probably would have had more regulations on egg farms than the Midwest, said Brent Wilcox, president of Wilcox Farms in Roy, Wash.
"It would have got messy fast. This keeps it consistent," he said.
It won't affect Wilcox Farms, which has been moving entirely to cage-free egg production for five years, he said.
Egg agreement at glance
The agreement reached between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States seeks federal legislation that would:
* Require producers to replace conventional cages used by more than 90 percent of the industry with enriched housing systems that nearly double the space for each hen.
* Require perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
* Require producers to label all egg cartons as eggs from caged hens, enriched cages, cage-free or free-range hens.
* Prohibit the withholding of feed and water to cause molting to extend laying cycles.
* Require American Veterinary Medical Association-approved standards for euthanasia of egg-laying hens.
* Prohibit excessive ammonia levels in hen houses.
* Prohibit sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don't meet these requirements.