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February 18, 2014

Unfinished Business for Laying Hens

Now that the King amendment is dead, and President Obama’s signature is on the Farm Bill, discussion has turned to the fate of the federal legislation backed by The Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers (UEP), along with a raft of other organizations, to ban barren battery cages for laying hens and to establish minimum space and enrichment requirements for the birds.  The bills, officially called the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, H.R. 1731 and S. 820, flowed from an armistice between The HSUS and UEP after years of battling over the issue of the extreme confinement of laying hens on factory farms.

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Hens in a battery cage operation. Photo by Compassion Over Killing

With this unprecedented accord reached between once-warring parties, we took our case to Congress, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., attempted to include the egg industry reform bill in her initial Farm Bill.  However, several farm-state senators, taking their cue from the beef and pork lobbies, said they’d try to bring the entire food and agriculture bill down if the egg bill was included. In the interest of moving the broader bill forward, Chairwoman Stabenow and the primary author of the egg bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reluctantly acceded.

When the Farm Bill was heading to the floor in the other chamber of Congress, the House authors of H.R. 1731–Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. and Jeff Denham, R-Calif. – proposed the egg industry reform bill as an amendment, and we believed we had more than enough votes to pass the measure.  The House Rules Committee, however, denied Reps. Denham and Schrader the opportunity to have a floor vote, despite rhetoric from House leaders that they were committed to allowing lawmakers to debate and decide significant issues of the day.

In short, the egg industry reform bill – which offered the prospect of improving the living conditions for more than 250 million laying hens jammed now in 67-inch-or-less space allotments – stalled because of the dysfunction of Congress, the blocking maneuvers of a small number of lawmakers, and bullying and lobbying by other sectors of animal agriculture intent on stymieing any progress on animal welfare, even in this case where an entire industry sector wanted to see federal legislative change.

It was a shameful example of what’s wrong with our political system that the beef and pork lobbies could prevent progress for reform within a sector of agriculture not their own.   As I told many a reporter, Congress should have ignored the childish fits of these industries, not least of all because cows and pigs don’t lay eggs.

And Congress still can.  The HSUS believes the legislation is sound policy for the country.  It’d be an improvement for animals, better for consumers, and better for farmers.  We will continue to advocate for the bill, and we hold out some hope that Congress is capable of doing what’s right when it comes to the future of a multi-billion-dollar industry and a staple of the American diet.

At the same time, we are now less than a year away from implementation in California of Proposition 2, which effectively bans any extreme confinement of laying hens in California.  California lawmakers also enacted a related measure that would apply Prop 2 standards to the sale of any eggs in the state, no matter where they came from.  Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed a lawsuit against the California Attorney General because he wants to allow Missouri producers to sell their eggs in California no matter how miserably the birds are confined. We’ll fight his attempt to undercut the rules of the state of California with all our might.

Meanwhile, we’ll be asking major food retailers in California to get ready to start exclusively selling cage-free eggs in California, since cage-free production systems certainly comply with Prop 2 standards.

Confinement of laying hens in battery cages is inhumane and unsafe.  Consumers don’t want eggs from animals living in that kind of extreme suffering.  One way or another, we’ve got to find a pathway forward for the nation.  Asking farmers and retailers to adhere to California’s law is a good start.  And we want to ask all egg farmers to get on with plans to eliminate their battery cages and replace them with something better.  We know it’s a challenge, but that’s the future of the industry.

Again, it’s not too late for the Congress to act, and it’s time for major American food companies to develop plans to phase out the purchase of eggs from extreme confinement systems and to stock their shelves with cage-free eggs in their place. When all is said and done, it will boil down to the wishes of consumers.  The confinement operations have existed because consumers bought those eggs.  When they demand eggs from hens who can move around, and when they ask lawmakers to put animal welfare standards into the law, then we’ll see the change that laying hens so desperately need.

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