By DAN WHEAT
Pacific Northwest egg producers and the Humane Society of the United States are declaring victory after reaching a national-level agreement on egg-laying hen welfare that resulted in the suspension of ballot initiatives in Washington and Oregon.
HSUS and the national United Egg Producers group announced an agreement July 7 to seek federal legislation to enlarge the housing for all 280 million egg-laying hens in the nation.
The agreement was announced just one day before HSUS, Washingtonians for Humane Farms and Farm Sanctuary planned to submit more than 355,000 voter signatures to get a cage-free initiative on Washington's Nov. 8 general election ballot.
A similar initiative was planned in Oregon for next year.
The federal proposal would require egg producers to phase in larger cages for chickens over the next 15 to 18 years at an estimated cost of $4 billion.
Currently, most egg-laying hens live in cages where each has 67 square inches of space. Roughly 50 million have 48 square inches. The proposal would give hens 124 to 144 square inches of space.
"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," Bob Krouse, UEP chairman, 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, he said.
"Passing this bill would be an historic improvement for hundreds of millions of animals per year," Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, said in the release.
He thanked producers for agreeing to invest in "meaningful" improvements in hen housing.
The legislation would supersede state laws such as those in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio. Laws passed this year in Washington and Oregon would also be superseded.
In recognition of Proposition 2 passed by California voters in 2008, UEP and HSUS will ask Congress to require California egg producers -- with nearly 20 million laying hens -- to eliminate conventional cages by 2015, the date the proposition was to go into effect, and provide all hens with space and environmental enrichments 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.
The proposed legislation would:
* Replace conventional cages used by more than 90 percent of the industry with enriched housing systems that nearly double the space for each bird.
* Provide perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
* 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 the euthanasia of egg-laying hens.
* Prohibit excessive ammonia levels in hen houses.
* Prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don't meet these requirements.
"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 in Canby, Ore.
"Having UEP and HSUS in agreement on a standard is a huge landmark," he said.
Washington Initiative 1130 would have banned tiered cages and basically banned all cages, requiring cage-free housing, which Satrum said would have been so expensive that it would jeopardize the industry.
The federal proposal doesn't go that far but requires enriched colony cages with a bit more room per hen than the legislation passed this year in Washington and Oregon, he said.
It is a sustainable system the industry can live with, he said, adding 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 but a 25 to 40 percent increase in moving from conventional to cage-free, Satrum said.
Consumers will see some increase in grocery-store egg prices with colony systems but not nearly as much as with cage-free set-ups, 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.
Negotiations between UEP and HSUS occurred over the last few weeks, and the timing of the agreement with the Washington ballot initiative signature deadline "is not a complete coincidence," he said. His father, Gordon Satrum, is on the UEP board, he said.
The agreement also saves both sides millions of dollars in the costs of state-by-state initiative campaigns, he said.
"This is an improvement for hundreds of millions of birds all over the country," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of Factory Farming Campaigns of HSUS, when asked why the organization now backs enriched colony cages when it has in the past opposed all cages.
"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.
"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.
Withdrawal of the Washington and Oregon initiatives was part of the agreement, he said.
HSUS could revert to a state-by-state initiative approach if the federal effort fails, he said, adding he hopes it does not.
A bill will be introduced in coming weeks, he said.