Egg industry girds for fight
Updated: Friday, February 25, 2011 9:38 AM
Animal rights groups gear up for major media campaign attacking egg industry
By DAN WHEAT
A proposed initiative requiring more living space for egg-laying hens in Washington would increase costs, potentially eliminate 95 percent of the state's egg production and result in consumers paying more for eggs, producers say.
Duane Olsen, a veterinarian for egg producer Briarwood Farms of Rochester, Wash., said the industry doesn't have the resources to compete with the multi-million-dollar media campaign that initiative proponents are planning.
The initiative has been proposed by representatives of two national animal-rights organizations, the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary. If 241,153 registered voters sign petitions supporting the initiative by July 8, it will appear on the November general election ballot.
The initiative 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.
The initiative would allow larger cages but the trend is toward aviary-type settings in which chickens can move about and lay eggs in nesting boxes over conveyor belts, said Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary.
Seven major egg producers operate in Washington and have a combined 6.5 million hens, Olsen said. About 5 percent are considered cage-free.
The efforts of Farm Sanctuary and HSUS is resulting in Michigan and California producers phasing out cages. Legislation is pending in other states. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, which required all whole eggs sold be cage-free by 2015.
The Humane Society is considering a bill for the Oregon legislature this year that is similar to the Washington initiative but has no efforts in Idaho, said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the society's "factory farming" campaign. Baur said initiatives may be put forth in Oregon and Idaho in the future.
"It is cruel and inhumane to cram animals into cages so small they can barely move," HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said in a news release.
Olsen said cages are humane.
"I do not believe those chickens are unhappy or they would not be laying at the rate they do. The first thing that goes is reproduction," he said.
"I've anticipated this for 10 years as I've seen (animal rights) activists becoming more active," Olsen said.
In anticipation, he's been urging the industry toward larger cages with enhancements like objects for hens to trim their beaks and places to sit.
Current cages are 20 by 24 by 17 inches and contain six to seven chickens, Olsen said. "They are able to turn around and move," he said.
"We are thinking of running webcams to show people," he said. "The birds are not showing us that they are unhappy."
Olsen proposes "colony" cages of 8 by 8 by 4 feet of 60 chickens each.
"We are now adjusting to more space, and that apparently doesn't satisfy the Washington, D.C., special interest groups," he said.
Olsen was involved in the unsuccessful fight against Proposition 2 in California. Briarwood Farms, where Olsen works, is owned by Valley Fresh Foods Inc. of Turlock, Calif. Valley Fresh also owns Rainbow Farms of Turlock and Skylane Farms in Woodburn, Ore. The three operations make Valley Fresh a major West Coast egg producer.
Dan Wood, director of local affairs at the Washington Farm Bureau, said the bureau will support whatever egg producers do in opposing the initiative.
"The initiative will put an end to a lot of production in our state. The methods used today are with scientific underpinnings for animal health and safety and production. Healthy chickens produce eggs. To argue anything other than that is not logical or scientific," Wood said.
The initiative's requirement that even out-of-state eggs sold in Washington be produced in cage-free facilities violates interstate commerce law, Wood said.
If approved by voters, the measure would take effect in 2018, giving producers about six years to conform. But Olsen said that's still an economic hardship on producers, especially those having to revamp newer facilities.
In-state farms would be at a competitive disadvantage to out-of-state farms in meeting the standard, said Greg Satrum, president of the Northwest Poultry Council.
Baur said a University of California-Davis study found cage-free systems increase production costs about 1 cent per egg. That likely would be passed onto consumers and does not include the cost of revamping facilities, he said.
Olsen said the true cost is closer to 2 cents an egg, including the cost of changing facilities.
"Just plain Economics 101 tells you that if you add to the cost of production," not all producers will continue, Olsen said. Less local production means trucking in more eggs from other states, increasing what consumers pay by at least 25 cents a dozen.
The Northwest Poultry Council, which represents seven egg companies and several fryer producers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, is supporting bills in the Washington and Oregon legislatures setting minimum hen-care standards.
Unlike the initiative, the bills would include egg products, not just eggs in shells, said Satrum, who is also vice president of Willamette Egg Farms in Canby, Ore. "We think our approach has a lot more integrity."
The legislation puts a moratorium on conventional cage construction and requires egg producers to go to systems that can be adapted to become American Humane Association-approved colony systems, Satrum said. Systems are typically 4 by 12 feet by 17.7 inches high for 60 hens, he said.
That's 116 square inches per hen versus 67 square inches per hen in current systems and 216 square inches per hen required by the initiative, he said. The initiative also bans multi-tiered systems, which is a clever way of banning colony systems, he said.
"Prop. 2 made it clear most California voters wanted to give hens more room. Northwest egg farmers decided rather than fighting, we would move toward colony systems, giving hens more room," Satrum said.
"We shared this with (HSUS) representatives in early December and invited them to work with us on the legislation and they essentially walked away and introduced the initiative that would make the colony system too costly to operate. We're very disappointed," Satrum said.
"We regret that egg producers in Washington were so unwilling to compromise during the course of literally years of private dialogue. It's because of that refusal that the ballot measure is proceeding for this November," Shapiro said.
Satrum responded, "We were very open with the Humane Society and explained to them that Northwest farms produce an abundant supply of cage-free eggs to meet consumer demand, but that we can't commit to more without demand."
Cage-free eggs sell for twice the price of conventional eggs and not everyone is willing to pay more, Satrum said. For Northwest producers to switch entirely to cage-free would put themselves out of business, he said. Current cages are designed to produce affordable eggs and keep hens clean and healthy, he said.
"Hens live longer, lay more eggs and stay cleaner and healthier in cages than cage-free systems, but they don't have as much freedom," Satrum said.
Eggs cost $5 to $6 a dozen in European countries with strict cage-free standards, he said.
HSUS and Farm Sanctuary have organized Washingtonians for Humane Farms and are recruiting local partners. The Center for Food Safety, United Farmworkers and Consumers Union all supported passage of the California initiative and likely would support the Washington campaign, Baur said. The cost of the campaign will be in the $2 million range, including television advertising, he said.
A Seattle woman, Tamar Krevsky Puckett, filed three versions of the initiative with the Secretary of State's office on Jan. 17.
The versions differ only slightly, said Kay Ramsay, programs specialist in the secretary of state's office. It's common for people to file multiple versions of an initiative until they decide which one they want, she said.
A legislative code reviser will review all three and was to suggest any changes to the sponsor by Jan. 27, Ramsay said. The sponsor then has 15 working days -- until Feb. 17 -- to submit a final text for review by the attorney general's office and writing a ballot title and summary, Ramsay said.
Then the sponsor has until July 8 to gather the signatures of 241,153 registered voters to get the petition on the November general election ballot, she said.
"We recommend they turn in approximately 320,000 signatures to get enough valid signatures," Ramsay said.
To see video of egg production, go to www.willamette-egg.com and click on "Our Farm" and then "Farm Tour."