Legislation proposed by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., that would set a minimum cage size and other care standards for egg-laying hens throughout the United States appears to be stalled in the House of Representatives.
House Resolution 3798 embodies an agreement between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States requiring egg producers throughout the country to switch from battery cages to larger, enriched-colony cages for egg-laying hens over the next 15 to 18 years. The bill would nullify state laws and prohibit new state laws or ballot measures regulating egg production.
It was a cozy little deal, and we understand why the egg producers and HSUS were enthusiastic in its support. While we can't fault the egg producers for trying to get the best deal they could under the circumstances, one-off bargains that separate the interests of the various segments of animal agriculture are troubling.
In exchange for United Egg's support of the agreement, HSUS agreed to drop a ballot initiative campaign that was already under way in Washington state that would have set a more severe standard, and agreed to also drop a petition drive to get a similar measure on the ballot in Oregon.
United Egg had sought legislative compromises in the Oregon Legislature to block that initiative. When that failed, producers entered into the deal with HSUS to block standards they say would have ruined their industry in Oregon, Washington and other states where HSUS could initiate ballot drives. HSUS was handed the opportunity to impose a nationwide cage and care standard without waging costly state-by-state campaigns.
Other livestock organizations, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Farmers Union weren't party to the negotiations. They say United Egg has handed animal rights groups the means to impose their standards on all aspects of animal agriculture. They say the bill could easily be amended later to mandate standards for the production of all livestock and dairy farmers. Assurances by HSUS that it would not seek such amendments, at least not in the short run, were given little value since other animal rights groups were quick to say that they are not party to any agreements.
So far Schrader, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, hasn't won many converts. Rep. Frank Lucas, the committee's chairman, opposes the deal and says he won't give the bill a hearing. Rep. Collin Peterson, the committee's ranking Democrat, isn't a supporter. That doesn't bode well for the agreement.
The options are few and unappealing. Either animal ag will continue to face challenges in every state and in the courts, or it will be governed by national standards under federal law.
All segments of animal agriculture must reach consensus on a strategy moving forward. Whether the vote is for a grand national compromise, or continuing state-by-state battles, the campaign should be joined by an industry united in its goals.