Federal egg bill still sought

Dan Wheat/Capital Press file Chickens are crowded but can move around in these cages that a proposal in Congress would ban. Eight hens occupy each cage of 24-by-22.5-by-15 inches. Manure drops to conveyor belts and eggs roll on slanted cage floors to separate conveyors. The facility produces about 648,000 eggs a day.

United Egg Producers and The Humane Society of the United States will keep pushing this year for federal standards for the welfare of egg-laying hens despite their inability to get the measure passed in the last two years.

An agreement to work together expired at the end of 2013, but both organizations will continue to honor it, their presidents told Capital Press.

“I’m not overly optimistic our egg bill will pass in Congress, but that’s not to say it couldn’t six months from now,” said Chad Gregory, president and CEO of UEP.

“The situation in California at the end of the year will be very chaotic and potentially catastrophic as to the supply of eggs and that may make passing a federal egg bill look like a simple solution,” Gregory said.

California’s Proposition 2, which voters passed in 2008, takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, and will put California egg producers at a competitive disadvantage with those in other states, he said. It could put a lot of producers out of business and create an egg shortage, he said.

Of immediate concern to HSUS is an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to the Farm Bill, which is still pending in a Senate-House conference committee. The amendment is aimed at overturning Proposition 2. But it would also adversely affect other state animal protection laws, said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.

The King amendment would wipe out state laws that impose standards or conditions on agricultural products sold in interstate commerce, including Proposition 2 and laws in Oregon and elsewhere phasing in larger, enriched-colony cages, Pacelle said. The larger cages are a goal of the HSUS-UEP egg bill, which would also supersede state laws regulating egg production.

Proposition 2 requires that egg-laying hens have enough room to turn around and stretch their wings, but doesn’t specify how much space.

Pacelle said he doesn’t think the King amendment will make it out of the conference committee. HSUS and UEP will continue to build support, he said, for passage of the Egg Products Inspection Act they first introduced in 2012 and reintroduced in 2013.

Its passage has been prevented by opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation and pork, beef and other livestock commodity groups that fear setting a precedent for federal control of how livestock is raised, Pacelle said. He noted the Federal Meat Inspection Act already sets federal slaughter standards.

Some opponents, however, say the egg bill delves too far into livestock management. Other opponents, including some animal rights groups, say it does not go far enough because it does not ban cages.

“It’s the right policy,” Pacelle said. “It’s good for animals, egg producers, consumers and the entire country. Enriched-colony cages are essentially the same feed costs but enhanced productivity.”

The industry standard with traditional battery cages is 67 square inches of space per white hen and 78 square inches for brown hens, Pacelle said. About 10 to 20 percent of the industry falls below that, at 48 to 52 square inches, he said. The egg bill would phase in 124 square inches per hen over 15 years. UEP has estimated the cost of upgrading cages at $4 billion.

Gregory said 85 percent of the U.S. egg industry meets UEP certified conventional or cage-free standards. He said UEP will work this year to add enriched-colony standards.

Voluntary movement toward enriched-colony cages is good but it doesn’t pre-empt state laws like Proposition 2, he said.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., has been a prime sponsor of the House proposals. There have been 151 co-sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate since 2012.

The bills are based on an agreement between HSUS and UEP reached in 2011 that ended years of battle between the two groups and ended HSUS initiative efforts in Washington and Oregon that would have required cage-free facilities.

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