April 15, 2012


 The henhouse

AVMA support for federal egg standard bill divides stakeholders

Posted April 1, 2012

The recent AVMA Executive Board vote supporting federal legislation that would establish national standards for treatment of egg-laying hens was not made lightly.

"It certainly was one of the most challenging decisions made during my tenure. It was a heartfelt vote," said Executive Board Chair Ted Cohn, who has served on the AVMA board for the past six years.

The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 3798) introduced Jan. 23 would require that U.S. egg producers switch to larger, environmentally enriched hen housing systems over a 15- to 18-year period. Additionally, the measure prohibits removing feed and water to induce molting, sets limits on ammonia concentrations in henhouses, and makes compliance with AVMA-approved euthanasia methods mandatory.

Much of the egg industry favors a national standard in light of the current patchwork of state laws governing egg production. But opponents say the initiative amounts to an unprecedented expansion of government oversight on the nation's farms, where livestock are exempt from federal animal welfare regulations.

Equally distasteful to H.R. 3798 critics, the standards would codify an agreement reached in 2011 by United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States—an advocacy organization often at odds with livestock producers as well as the AVMA (see JAVMA, March 15, 2012).

During a Feb. 10 conference call, Executive Board members considered an AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee recommendation of support for H.R. 3798. The designation puts the Association on record as agreeing with the legislation but not actively pursuing its passage in Congress.

Before the board were competing memos from the AVMA's Animal Welfare and Animal Agricultural Liaison committees regarding the bill. In giving their reasons for supporting H.R. 3798, the AWC explained that the legislation is consistent with AVMA policies addressing this area of animal agriculture, specifically "Layer Hen Housing Systems" and "Induced Molting of Layer Chickens." Moreover, available science and production data suggest that enriched colony housing may enhance overall hen welfare while retaining productivity, according to the AWC memo.

In its own memo, the Animal Agricultural Liaison Committee expressed strong support for animal welfare standards for livestock, including several standards listed in H.R. 3798. The committee advised the Executive Board against supporting the legislation, however, because of concerns about the precedent-setting nature of legislating animal welfare standards and worries that the bill sets the stage for similar attempts at regulating other areas of animal agriculture.

After nearly an hour of deliberation, the AVMA board concurred with the LAC and AWC opinions, and voted in favor of supporting the bill.

Board members knew their action would make political adversaries, at least on this issue, of some allies of the AVMA. While board members sympathized with concerns about government oversight of on-farm welfare practices, their vote was ultimately based on a single rationale: The proposed colony housing and enrichment standards would likely improve the lives of some 280 million egg-laying hens.

"We recognized the controversy supporting this bill would create," Dr. Cohn explained. "We also recognized we weren't going to make people happy no matter what we did, which made the decision difficult. But we knew we needed to do what was best for the animals."

News of the AVMA board's decision spread quickly.

"The AVMA's support for H.R. 3798 enhances veterinarians as the group to initiate and support common-sense solutions that can bridge the animal rights/livestock continuum and present American agriculture as 21st century leaders in safe and healthy food," said Dr. Kurt Schrader, the Oregon congressman who introduced the legislation.

UEP President and CEO Gene Gregory welcomed the AVMA's endorsement of the legislation his organization helped create. "The AVMA is the most highly respected association of veterinarians and works for the health and welfare of all animals, including pets. We believe these professionals are the ones most qualified to recommend and evaluate standards for the welfare of animals. Therefore, their support was critically important," Gregory said.

Opponents of H.R. 3798 have called the Executive Board decision shortsighted, and even a sop to animal rights groups. The AVMA heard from farm, livestock, and veterinary organizations as well as some congressional staff members upset about the board's vote. Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the AVMA position is disappointing.

"AVMA's own science acknowledges that conventional cages, if used appropriately, can be effective for ensuring animal welfare," Ludlum said. "We understand the decision was made because the AVMA was being proactive and looking forward to continuous improvements, but we're disappointed the AVMA took a position that effectively rules out the use of conventional cages by producers." The AFBF will work with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council, among others, to prevent H.R. 3798 from becoming law, Ludlum noted.

Since the vote, AVMA officials have been talking with unhappy stakeholders to explain the reasons behind the Executive Board vote.

The Association's endorsement also touched a nerve within the veterinary profession itself. Dr. Bob Evans is the American Association of Avian Pathologists' representative on the AVMA Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee, which he also chairs. Although the AAAP supports the national egg standards, he considers H.R. 3798 an onerous bill, because it makes legislators—not veterinarians—responsible for establishing animal care and welfare standards, and requires legislative action when changes are needed.

Dr. Evans says he isn't surprised by the Executive Board decision, which he believes was driven more by a need for political expediency than hard science. For him and other AALC members, the issue reignited questions about whether the AVMA adequately represents food animal veterinarians, who account for fewer than 20 percent in the profession. "As a representative of AALC, I can say that in that group, there is a sense of a disconnect between us and this Executive Board," Dr. Evans said. 

"We recognized the controversy supporting

this bill would create. We also recognized we weren't

going to make people happy no matter what we did,

which made the decision difficult. But we knew

we needed to do what was best for the animals."

Dr. Ted Cohn, AVMA Executive Board chair

AVMA CEO Ron DeHaven was sensitive to the AALC's concerns. He did not agree that the decision was driven by political correctness, however, or that the board was not adequately representing food animal veterinarians.

"The AVMA Executive Board carefully reviewed the science behind the legislation and all of the relevant factors, including input from the AALC," he said. "The board is also keenly aware of AVMA's key role as a leader in animal welfare."

Dr. DeHaven continued, "The AVMA represents all aspects of veterinary medicine, and our strong support for food animal veterinarians is seen throughout the organization. Indeed, the majority of our highest-priority 'active pursuit' issues on the AVMA's legislative agenda pertain to large animals, including our fiscal year 2013 appropriations priorities, (opposition to) the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, and the 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization."

The struggle to arrive at an appropriate response to H.R. 3798 occurred at all levels of the AVMA's evaluation process. The Animal Welfare Committee was "acutely aware" of the sensitivities surrounding H.R. 3798 and carefully considered the proposal before recommending AVMA support, according to Dr. J. Bruce Nixon, the Association of Avian Veterinarians representative to the committee, and its chair.

"We started by reviewing existing AVMA policies, then considered what science was and was not available regarding enriched colony housing. We also evaluated possible scenarios pertinent to industry economics and sustainability," Dr. Nixon explained. "All our stakeholders were most certainly not in agreement in this case. We have a responsibility to listen to all sides of an issue. In this case, we not only listened but actively sought out stakeholders who had reservations as well as those close to the issue personally and professionally."

The favorable recommendation the Legislative Advisory Committee submitted to the Executive Board did not have the backing of all committee members, according to LAC Chair John de Jong. Additionally, the LAC had "strong reservations" about the federal government legislating welfare standards, particularly given the difficulties associated with amending the standards, should the science change, said Dr. de Jong, who also serves on the Executive Board.

AVMA leadership anticipated criticism from stakeholders, but taking no action would have been seen as "waffling" on a matter consistent with Association policy, Dr. de Jong explained.

"We should be seen as the most important organization in this country regarding animal welfare," he said. "People in the legislative arena and the public should turn to us when they want answers as to what's the right thing to do when it comes to animal welfare issues. Supporting this issue should speak volumes." 



The AVMA legislative agenda is posted here.