Chicken & egg bill raises flap in Congress

WASHINGTON — In this Congress, even eggs can cause a political stir.

An effort by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to establish a national standard for the cages in which hens lay eggs has run afoul of farm-state lawmakers.

The conflict was on display at a Senate hearing Thursday.

Feinstein’s bill drew support from a large contingent of egg producers who turned out at the Capitol, but it also generated concerns from Republican senators.

“Why would the federal government want to drive up costs on one of the staples of their diet?” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, suggesting the legislation could increase egg prices. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, added, “Some states have passed bad laws that are hurting their egg producers and consumers, and now they want to fix it by putting non-science-based restrictions on all egg farmers.”

Feinstein’s bill grows out of California voter approval in 2008 of a measure requiring chicken farmers to give egg-laying birds enough room to stand and spread their wings. Similar laws have been passed in a handful of other states, creating what Feinstein called a patchwork of rules that threaten to scramble the egg market.

“Egg farmers got a dramatic wake-up call when California voters passed Proposition 2 by a 2-1 margin in 2008,” Greg Herbruck, owner of a Michigan poultry ranch in Michigan, told the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Our farms can’t maintain a separate henhouse standard for every state where we want to sell eggs.”

But Amon Baer, a Minnesota farmer, said, “The problems of one state or even a handful of states does not justify a federal mandate on all 50 states.”

Feinstein’s Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments’ would establish a national standard for the “humane” treatment of egg-laying hens and the labeling of eggs, including increasing the size of hen cages.

It’s backed by an unusual alliance of the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States.

“This compromise represents something unique in animal agriculture,” Feinstein said.

Her legislation is opposed by a number of farm groups, including the beef, pork and sheep industries, which signed onto a letter contending the legislation could set a “dangerous precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate everything that happens on farms.”

Republicans in the past have advocated national standards on other matters, such as when California sought to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, contending it was preferable to a patchwork of state laws.

Prospects for the bill are uncertain. Feinstein was thwarted in her efforts to include the measure in the Senate farm bill, despite her assurances that the measure would affect only the egg industry. She also contended it would have a negligible effect on egg prices.

An effort is under way in the Republican-controlled House to block states from imposing their own standards for agriculture products on producers from other states. The effort comes in response to a California law, which will take effect in 2015, that requires that all eggs sold in the state to be produced by hens held in cages that meet the California standards. One of the bill’s cosponsors is Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who chairs the Agriculture Committee.

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