By DAN WHEAT
The Humane Society of the United States and affiliated groups have suspended cage-free ballot initiatives in Washington and Oregon after reaching an agreement with United Egg Producers for federal legislation improving the housing of all 280 million egg-laying hens in the nation.
If enacted it would be the first federal law addressing the treatment of animals on farms.
The agreement was announced July 7, 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 fall ballot.
An initiative was being planned in Oregon for next year.
HSUS and UEP announced they will jointly ask Congress for legislation requiring egg producers to phase in greater bird space over the next 15 to 18 years at an estimated cost of $4 billion.
Currently, most egg-laying hens live in cages where each have 67 square inches of space, with roughly 50 million receiving 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 the Humane Society. 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 make investments to upgrade housing and make "meaningful" improvement in animal welfare.
The legislation would supersede state laws including those passed in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio.
In recognition of ballot 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 be phasing 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 include:
* Replacing conventional cages used by more than 90 percent of the industry with enriched housing systems nearly doubling the space for each bird. The systems would include perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
* Egg cartons nationwide that would be labeled to say which system the eggs came from.
* 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 henhouses.
* Prohibit sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don't meet these requirements.