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June 08, 2012

A Critical Moment to Help Hens

The U.S. Senate turned on Thursday to opening statements on the farm bill, and over the next two weeks, the Senate will debate dozens of amendments to this omnibus farm policy measure before giving it final approval. We expect that one amendment may come from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. That amendment would encompass the content of their bill, S. 3239, to set up minimum space and enrichment standards for the care of the nation’s 280 million laying hens―essentially doubling space for each hen over a phase-in period (with benchmarks along the way) and within a year banning forced starvation-based molting, limiting ammonia levels, and setting up a labeling program. We are encouraging our supporters to call their two U.S. Senators (the switchboard is 202-224-3121) and to urge them to co-sponsor S. 3239 and support the Feinstein amendment to the farm bill.

White hen

The legislation comes as a result of a surprising and landmark compromise on the issue between The HSUS and the United Egg Producers, which have been political adversaries for years―most notably over Proposition 2 in California in 2008. Rather than fighting an expensive set of battles state-by-state over a decade or two, with an uncertain set of outcomes, the two groups agreed on a path forward to reform that will result in improved treatment for all 280 million birds in the U.S. egg industry and give that industry a greater degree of confidence in the regulatory framework it must abide by. 

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Since we announced the agreement last July, it’s attracted support from a long list of animal welfare groups, including the ASPCA, Mercy for Animals, Farm Sanctuary, In Defense of Animals, and others. These groups are pragmatic and focused on getting tangible results for animals. S. 3239, and the House companion bill, H.R. 3798, have also won the backing of the American Veterinary Medical Association and other veterinary and avian science groups. And the measures have been endorsed by Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League. Newspapers throughout the country―from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Chicago Tribune―have also endorsed this measure as a successful initiative in problem-solving.

But it’s no surprise that there are still groups standing in the way―mainly the pork industry and the cattlemen’s association. It would be an appalling outcome if industries with no direct stake in the egg industry could subvert something as positive and important as this agreement. It is the very reason why the American public is often disgusted with Congress and with hired-gun lobbyists―that some lawmakers don’t make judgments on the merits of a policy issues, but their decision-making is driven by pressure from special interests that divide the world along partisan lines and hew to their particular orthodoxy. In this case, their orthodoxy is that there should be no requirements in federal law related to animal welfare. Let’s remember, these are the same groups that opposed the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act when it was proposed a half-century ago and they’ve not relented in their opposition even to modest improvements for animals–in this case, for an entirely separate industry!

But one big question, especially as it relates to the pork industry, is this: shouldn’t pig farmers be cleaning up their own house first and not worrying about improvements that the egg industry now wants to move ahead with?  Since Jan. 1, many of the pork industry’s biggest customers have said they no longer want pork from operations that confine their sows in tiny crates that don’t allow the animals to turn around. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kroger, Safeway, and so many others have said they think these crates are unsustainable and they’ve set time frames to cleanse their supply chain of pork that comes from operations that confine the sows so severely.

With its customer base demanding change, and with the American public strongly disapproving of this method of extreme confinement, why is the pork industry telling the egg industry how to run its business? How arrogant and out of touch. And why would the Congress even give these guys the time of day? 

Lawmakers should do what’s right for animals and for this industry. It’s rare that common ground has been found on a contentious issue. It’s time to act.

Please raise your voice in the coming days and let your lawmakers know how you feel.

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