Egg industry urged to act aggressively
Washington state looks to Michigan for examples in fending off measures
By WES SANDER
California egg producers say their counterparts in Washington must be more aggressive in fending off a ballot measure certain to ban all cages in egg production there.
The Humane Society of the United States is one sponsor of a ballot initiative in Washington that would require egg producers to give hens enough room to turn around and extend their wings. Any eggs sold in the state would have to be produced in facilities meeting that standard.
A similar ballot measure, Proposition 2, was approved by California voters in 2008.
In the short term, Washington producers should consider introducing a competing ballot initiative, Jill Benson, vice president of California egg producer J.S. West, said. To address the long term, they should assemble an animal-welfare panel sanctioned by the state.
"I would suggest the Washington (producers) be proactive in creating an animal-care board that has teeth in it," Benson said.
That idea stems from efforts in Michigan, where lawmakers in 2009 passed legislation setting standards for food-animal care and creating an advisory panel to periodically review standards. The legislation is credited with fending off a similar ballot measure backed by the Humane Society of the United States.
Washington lawmakers have introduced bills that would make animal-care guidelines supported by United Egg Producers mandatory, hoping to diffuse public support for the ballot initiative. The animal-care board would further that effort, Benson said.
In response to Proposition 2, J.S. West last year outfitted a new egg barn at its Modesto facility with "enriched colony" hen housing. The system employs 4-by-12 cages containing 60 birds, providing more space per bird than the 2-by-2 "battery cages" still in commercial use.
Benson says the cages follow guidelines set by Proposition 2. HSUS disagrees, saying no existing cages will suffice.
Under Proposition 2, producers must phase out battery cages by 2015.
Hoping to reassure the public, J.S. West has installed cameras that feed live video of laying hens to its website. The company has asked a judge in Fresno County Superior Court to declare the cages suitable.
HSUS has denounced the cages, saying they "provide an unacceptably restrictive amount of space per bird" and don't allow sufficient exercise or natural behaviors.
But the measures taken by J.S. West wouldn't suffice under Washington's proposed measure, which seeks to prohibit the conventional system of stacking rows of cages in a multi-story barn. Farmers say such a provision would make cages unfeasible for egg production.
"So for all intents and purposes, you either don't produce eggs in the state of Washington, or you go cage-free," said Dennis Albiani, an egg industry lobbyist in Sacramento.
An HSUS official has said the organization is considering a bill addressing farm animals for the Oregon legislature, but has no plans for ballot initiatives in Oregon or Idaho.
Albiani said the industry needs to push for a national standard. HSUS' proposed initiative would require all eggs sold in-state be produced in systems that satisfy its restrictions.
"You need a nationwide standard," Albiani said. "You can't have Balkanization of the food business, it doesn't work that way."