Adversaries united on egg legislation

By Wayne Pacelle and Gene Gregory

It’s not often in Washington that two political adversaries come together and find a solution that is good for everyone involved and good for the nation. That’s just what’s on tap with the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, which would improve standards for laying hens in the egg industry and is backed by egg farmers, animal advocates, veterinarians and consumers.

Congress recessed for the election without taking final action on the Farm Bill. When they return they will be in a position to implement a policy that solves a controversial problem for a generation or more and has the enthusiastic support of so many key stakeholders.

The welfare of egg-laying hens has been among the most contentious issues that the agriculture industry and animal advocates have clashed over for the past several decades. Both sides have spent millions of dollars on state legislation and ballot measure campaigns, litigation, research and investigations and more.

Last year, the United Egg Producers, which represents nearly 90 percent of the U.S. egg industry, and the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal welfare group, agreed on a path forward to reform that will result in improved treatment of laying hens and give the industry a greater degree of confidence in the regulatory framework it must abide by. The legislation is also endorsed by the major Washington egg producers, including Wilcox Farms and Willamette Egg Farms.

The legislation will set minimum space and enrichment standards for the care of the nation’s 280 million laying hens — essentially doubling space over time for each hen kept in a conventional cage, banning any methods of molting that withdraw feed and limiting ammonia levels. These bills would also mandate labels on egg cartons informing consumers of the method used to produce eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens” or “eggs from cage-free hens” and “eggs from free-range hens,” which will help consumers make more informed decisions about their purchasing choices.

From the egg producers’ perspective, federal standards are needed because the alternative is a growing patchwork of inconsistent state standards that will restrict interstate movement of eggs, distort competition and potentially put many farmers out of business. Egg producers favor a shift to larger, enriched cages, but they can only do it if that standard applies to everyone. If some percentage of farmers opt out, and try to cut corners, then it undermines the investment made by farmers trying to do the right thing. The current state laws scheduled to take effect in the near future call for higher standards, and the proposed federal legislation is therefore a form of regulatory relief from this patchwork of conflicting state laws, providing egg farmers with more transition time and certainty that the rules won’t change after they make investments in their businesses.

Since changes to the cages would be phased in over the next 15 to 18 years, many during the normal course of replacing aged equipment, any consumer cost increases are expected to be minor. An economic study conducted by the independent research group Agralytica indicates that the changes are expected to increase consumer prices by less than 2 cents per dozen, spread out over an 18-year period. This slight increase, which will happen years into the future, is much less than natural price fluctuations based on a variety of other factors such as energy, feed and distribution costs.

The legislation is not expected to create any new substantial costs to the federal government. It amends the Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970, a four-decades-old federal statute which already regulates the sale of eggs and egg products in interstate commerce. The egg industry would be responsible for financing the investments in new housing structures for its egg-laying hens over the next 15 to 18 years.

This proposal deals only with egg-laying hens and has no effect on others in animal agriculture. The Egg Products Inspection Act only regulates the sale of eggs and does not reach into other agricultural products. This is a matter of self-determination for the egg industry. If this legislation is blocked by other livestock organizations unfamiliar with the science or economics of egg production, some egg farmers in certain states face the very real prospect of going out of business.

The leading scientists familiar with the egg industry embrace the legislation and urge a transition to larger, enriched colony cages. Animal scientist Jeffrey D. Armstrong calls the proposal the “best all around” for hen welfare. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Avian Pathologists and the Association of Avian Veterinarians all support this legislation as the best way forward for science-based animal welfare standards.

This is the sort of problem-solving the country needs. Washington’s members of Congress should enthusiastically support this legislation for the good of farmers, consumers and hundreds of millions of birds.

Wayne Pacelle is president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States. Gene Gregory is president and CEO of United Egg Producers.