'Greg was the glue that kept everybody together' while seeking compromise on hens
By MITCH LIES
CANBY, Ore. -- Greg Satrum, vice president of Willamette Egg Farms in Canby, much prefers working in chicken houses than the halls of the Capitol.
But his work last year negotiating a truce between egg producers and animal welfare activists may go down as some of the most important he's ever done.
Satrum, whose company is the Northwest's largest egg producer, helped develop and advance legislation in Washington and Oregon -- and which led to a groundbreaking federal proposal -- that represents a compromise between animal welfare concerns and egg producers to transition to more hen-friendly cages.
In the process, Satrum helped thwart animal activist efforts that some say would have shut down the region's industry.
Craig Smith, vice president of government affairs for the Northwest Food Processors Association, said he doubts the states' legislation would have passed were it not for the support of a broad coalition that included animal rights advocates and farm advocates.
Satrum was key to keeping the coalition together, Smith said.
"Greg was the glue that kept everybody together," Smith said. "We provided the lobby support, but Greg was the guy that kept this really odd coalition together."
"I think you've got to give credit to the industry here for being willing to step up and have a dialogue on a very difficult topic," said Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
"The negotiations on the legislative side were long, difficult and arduous," Coba said. "And my perception is the industry, and Greg as a member of the industry, handled it professionally."
Satrum said he spent more time in the state Capitol last year than he would have liked.
"I really prefer building stuff, getting out in the (chicken) houses and doing the work," Satrum said.
"But, last year, probably 85 percent of my time was spent just on the political side of things," Satrum said. "It was an interesting challenge but I look forward to having that done and having some certainty about what the future looks like."
Passage of the Oregon and Washington laws represented a skirmish in the battle over animal activists' efforts to transform the nation's egg industry.
The first shots in that battle were fired in 2008, when California voters approved a ballot initiative banning conventional cages for egg-laying hens.
At that point, Northwest egg producers believed it was only a matter of time before they came under fire.
By January 2011, their fears were realized. The Humane Society of the United States was gathering signatures for an initiative aimed at banning conventional cages in Washington. And less than seven months later, HSUS filed an initiative petition in Oregon.
Rather than fight the initiatives, Northwest producers took a different approach. They went to their state legislatures.
The moves, in retrospect, could have saved their industry.
"If those initiatives as initially written had passed in Washington or Oregon or both, we would have lost our entire egg-production business," said Smith, of the food processors association.
"And the threat of the initiative was substantial," Smith said. "It was a David versus Goliath. (HSUS) had the money. They had the grassroots. There was no way we were going to prevail."
The seven or so large-scale egg producers in Oregon and Washington initially hoped to develop legislation that they and HSUS could accept.
That hope, however, dissolved after two fall 2010 meetings.
One, a November meeting in Washington, involved HSUS director of farm animal protection Paul Shapiro and egg producers. The second, held in December in Oregon, involved HSUS President Wayne Pacelle, egg producers and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney's staff.
HSUS previously had helped the Salem Democrat craft what amounted to a cage-free bill that Courtney was preparing to introduce in the Legislature.
The Oregon meeting was an eye-opener for two reasons, Smith said.
At that point it became clear to egg producers that they were not going to reach a consensus with HSUS. And, Smith said, Courtney's staff "finally understood what it was that this bill was going to do to the producers in Oregon. And they didn't like it very much. So they started looking for middle ground."
What evolved was a bill calling for Oregon egg producers to adopt enriched colony housing by 2026. The system, required in Europe, has been endorsed by the American Humane Association. The AHA is not affiliated with HSUS.
The system includes perches for birds to hop on and scratching pads. It gives each bird between 116 and 144 square inches, enough to stretch their wings and not touch another bird or the sides of the cage.
In Washington, a similar bill surfaced, but against a different backdrop. It was introduced while HSUS was gathering signatures to place its cage-free initiative on the November 2011 ballot.
Both bills passed, but their passage was anything but routine.
Smith called efforts to pass the bills "the most complicated lobbying effort that I have ever seen." He said he was roundly criticized by both animal rights groups and producers.
"It was not an easy bill to explain." Smith said. "And our reasons for doing it were suspect on both sides of the issue.
"On the one hand, our friends were asking us, 'Why would you do this? You are capitulating. You are just rolling over and letting them take advantage of you.'
"And, frankly, we didn't see it that way.
"We believed right from the start this was a hen-care bill, and it was about the survival of the industry," he said.
HSUS, meanwhile, was still pushing for cage-free systems and was concerned over the length of time given producers to comply with the bill's requirements. It opposed both the Oregon and Washington bills.
The egg producers eventually obtained a broad range of endorsements that included some animal rights organizations and most major farm organizations.
In the meantime, HSUS has agreed in a memorandum of understanding with United Egg Producers to refrain from running citizen initiatives until it sees whether Congress adopts a national standard.
The amendment to the Egg Products Inspection Act would require producers to adopt enriched colony housing systems over a 15- to 18-year phase-in period and to identify on cartons the method of production used to produce eggs.
The labeling requirement would kick in one year after the legislation is enacted.
"That helps consumers make a more informed decision based on what they want to buy," HSUS's Shapiro said.
Shapiro said the organization has not decided how it will respond if the federal legislation fails.
"We're not making any plans at this point," he said. "We're putting all of our efforts into this issue, and we still feel good about the prospects of this bill."
Still, with the beef and pork industries opposing it, the bill faces an uphill battle, according to Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., sponsor of the bill. If it fails, Shapiro said, "both sides are back to square one."
Looking ahead, Oregon and Washington producers hope to avoid an expensive ballot initiative in the future.
"After the Proposition 2 experience, we know we have very little hope of defeating ballot measures," Satrum said. "A lot of money was spent down there, and it didn't help."
According to California election records, the opposition spent just under $9 million to defeat the measure, which banned conventional cages in California. Among the donations was $100,362 from Satrum's Willamette Egg Farms.
The Yes on Proposition 2 campaign had $10.5 million in donations, including more than $4 million from HSUS.
Satrum, who has farms in Oregon and Washington, produces some cage-free eggs and has an enriched colony housing cage on his Canby, Ore., farm.
"The hens do like it better," he said of the enriched system. "The hens are noticeably more comfortable. They are maintaining their feather cover better, so they look nicer."
Looking back on the struggles to pass the Oregon and Washington bills, Satrum said:
"For us, it was never about making activists happy, because we knew we couldn't do that.
"It was about if our customers understood the issue, what would they want us to do," Satrum said. "And it was about the hens."