Initiative, legislation compete to set hen housing standards

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A ballot initiative in Washington state would outlaw use of cages that limit behaviors of egg-laying hens and cages that stack hens one above another.

The initiative would also make it illegal in the state to sell eggs produced by hens kept in such cages.

However, a bill that passed both chambers of the state legislature in April would, if signed by the governor, phase in from 2012-2026 standards on housing and husbandry for hens that produce eggs and egg products sold in the state.

The Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary, collaborating under the group Washingtonians for Humane Farms, are gathering signatures for the ballot campaign. The initiative would change state law to require that, by 2018, all eggs sold in the state come from hens that are given room to "turn around freely, lie down, stand up, or fully extend their wings." Violations would be misdemeanor offenses.

The Washington State VMA opposes the initiative but supports Senate Bill 5487, which would phase in housing standards for egg-laying hens from 2012-2026. The Washington House of Representatives passed the bill April 11, and the Senate passed the bill April 21.

If the governor signs the bill, companies seeking new or renewed licenses to sell eggs or liquid, frozen, or powdered egg products in the state would, by August 2012, need to verify that their operations have either received United Egg Producers certification for meeting husbandry and housing guidelines or met an equivalent set of standards approved by the state. Those with more than 3,000 egg-laying hens would also have to provide proof that hen housing facilities built in 2012 or later meet or can be converted to meet American Humane Association standards for enriched colony housing or an equivalent set of standards approved by the state.

The UEP guidelines include standards for the amount of space birds need in conventional cage housing and cageless housing systems as well as guidance on a variety of management topics including beak trimming, conditions for molt programs, bird catching, transportation, euthanasia, and depopulation. The AHA enriched cage standards require that hens have sufficient freedom to stand, turn around, stretch their wings, and perch without disturbance, and set space standards of about 116 square inches for each hen. The AHA guidelines also cover many of the same husbandry and housing topics as the UEP guidelines.

By 2017, producers with more than 3,000 egg-laying hens who were seeking new or renewed licenses would need to provide proof that housing facilities built in 2012 or later meet the AHA plans and audit protocol for enriched colony housing or an equivalent approved by the state.

In 2026, the state would require that all hen housing meet those standards, regardless of when the facility was built or how many hens a company owns.