Once bitter rivals, Humane Society, United Egg Producers craft compromise bill
By DAN WHEAT
A bill setting federal standards for the housing and care of egg-laying hens may be introduced by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., after the first of the year.
The bill embodies a deal struck between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers last July to avoid ballot initiatives on the care of egg-laying hens in Washington, Oregon and potentially other states.
Egg producers in Oregon asked Schrader to sponsor the bill and he agreed to be responsive to their wishes and his constituents even though he has reservations, said Chris Huckleberry, Schrader's legislative director.
Several states faced the prospect of ballot initiatives mandating enriched cages for egg-laying hens, Huckleberry said.
"A patchwork of state laws across the country is not good for the industry and our producers could face a competitive disadvantage with producers from other states who aren't facing the same mandates and capital expenditures," he said.
Schrader is concerned about opposition from livestock industries who fear this could be the start of further regulation on them, Huckleberry said.
"That is not his intent. This is not something he sought out but was being responsive to his constituents," Huckleberry said.
The National Pork Producers Council and National Cattlemen's Beef Association oppose the deal. Both fear such legislation will set a precedent for animal welfare bills affecting their industries. Other livestock groups have reservations, Huckleberry said.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Humane Society, said the bill would hopefully be introduced before the end of the year, but Huckleberry said it will be introduced after the first of the year.
Asked how much support has been lined up so far, Huckleberry said, "we are still discussing the legislation with several members from both parties and we hope to have that nailed down in coming weeks. It's still a very fluid process."
Republicans and Democrats have expressed interest in being co-sponsors, he said. Schrader wants the bill to start in the House Agriculture Committee, of which he is a member, Huckleberry said.
UEP and HSUS ended more than 10 years of legal and legislative battles July 7 with an agreement to work on federal standards for the welfare and housing of all 280 million egg-laying hens in the nation. HSUS agreed to shelve initiative efforts for cage-free systems in Washington, Oregon and any future initiatives in other states. The standards would allow for larger, enriched-colony cages and phase out smaller cages over 15 to 18 years at an estimated cost of $4 billion.
It would prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide not meeting the standards. Small producers likely would be exempt.
Excessive ammonia levels in hen houses would be banned, certain euthanasia standards for hens would be adopted and the practice of withholding feed and water to cause molting to extend laying cycles would be banned.
Shapiro said HSUS and UEP want the bill to pass in 2012. There is no Senate sponsor so far. Both sides have agreed to work toward passage through June 30 and will reevaluate the situation if it hasn't happened by then, he said.
The agreement could be extended, but what happens would depend on how viable the legislation is in Congress, Shapiro said.
Mitch Head, spokesman for UEP, said UEP and HSUS are continuing to work well together toward passage of the bill. UEP does not discuss legislative strategy, he said.