Groups want national henhousing law

Egg producer group, welfare advocate negotiate standards
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A trade association for egg producers and an animal welfare advocacy organization will lobby for introduction of a federal law that would require more room for most egg-laying hens and cage enrichment for those birds.

In the agreement, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States will also push for provisions that would require that euthanasia of egg-laying hens follow AVMA guidelines, require housing-related labels on egg cartons, set limits on ammonia concentrations in henhouses, and prohibit feed or water withdrawal to extend laying. The standards would apply to about 280 million hens.

The organizations jointly announced their agreement July 7, before any legislation was drafted or any members of Congress had agreed to sponsor such a bill. But the joint statement indicates the organizations agree that the legislation should include a requirement that producers give each egg-laying hen at least 124 square inches of floor space and that the provisions be phased in within 18 years of the legislation's passage. The United Egg Producers' Certified program currently calls for 67 to 86 square inches of useable space per hen in cage-based production, and those standards have been adopted by most of the industry. The joint press release indicates about 50 million other hens live in about 48 square inches of space per bird.

Enriched cages similar to those shown would gradually become required for egg-laying hens if Congress were to pass legislation meeting requirements proposed by the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers. (Photo provided by Terry Pollard/Big Dutchman Inc.)

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, said his organization and the UEP developed outlines for the legislation through weeks of debate and negotiation.

"We certainly consulted our scientists on staff and some outside folks as we deliberated," Pacelle said. "But we kind of knew what the basic framework was, and our view is that the birds should have more space in order to engage in more natural and normal behaviors."

Gene Gregory, president and CEO of the UEP, said the HSUS had an ongoing campaign to use ballot initiatives to make egg producers switch to cage-free housing systems, which his organization has contended would be unsustainable for the egg industry and not necessarily better for the hens. However, the UEP could not sustain the expense of fighting that campaign in all states that allow ballot initiatives, and the campaign risked creation of a patchwork of standards that would interrupt commerce, he said.

The long campaign

Despite the agreement in July, the HSUS and UEP retained areas on their websites explaining their opposing positions. The HSUS asserted that the UEP gives welfare certifications to egg producers who keep hens in abusive conditions. The UEP accused the HSUS of pursuing an agenda that could harm animals and humans.

The recent agreement led the HSUS to suspend ballot campaigns in Oregon and Washington, both of which were intended to phase out cage-based housing systems. Since the introduction of those initiatives, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber had signed into law bills that will, through 2026, phase in requirements that eggs and egg products produced and sold in their states come from hens in housing that meets American Humane Association standards for enriched colony housing. The ballot campaigns continued after the Washington bill was signed May 10 and the Oregon bill was signed June 17.

The HSUS has backed successful ballot initiatives related to agricultural animal housing in Arizona, California, and Florida and pursued housing-related ballot campaigns in Colorado and Ohio.

Prior to the negotiations between the HSUS and UEP, the UEP had been considering adding European-style enriched housing similar to that described in the deal with the HSUS as an approved option for the UEP Certified program. Gregory said the UEP contacted Pacelle about the enriched housing option, and discussions began among teams from the organizations.

Within the UEP, the deal was arranged by its 34 board members, who were tasked with representing the interests of more than 200 member organizations, Gregory said. The board members weren't able to discuss the negotiations prior to the announcement, which likely surprised most UEP member companies, Gregory said. UEP leaders planned to meet with members around the country in August, when Gregory expected to hear members' questions and concerns. He hoped they would agree with the board's decision.

The phase-in period proposed by the groups would allow hen owners to use and depreciate their existing housing systems, pay off loans, and avoid market disruption, Gregory said. The HSUS and UEP set a goal of having such a bill enacted by June 30, 2012, and egg producers would likely start incrementally changing henhousing within three years of the enactment, he said.

Pacelle expressed hope that Congress would address the legislation this year. He described the agreement between the HSUS and UEP as a rare accord between his organization and an agriculture industry trade group.

Pacelle noted, however, that his organization has also negotiated agreements with state-level agriculture industries on some issues in California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Ohio. He described the HSUS and UEP agreement as part of an ongoing dialogue with the agriculture community to "forge solutions rather than enduring conflict."

Federal legislation on housing for egg-laying hens would save the HSUS from a state-by-state process of lobbying for changes in housing standards, Pacelle said. Like Gregory, he thinks the U.S. needs national standards for interstate commerce.

Pacelle expects the new standards could be enforced through existing Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration programs in cooperation with the UEP. Gregory indicated existing federal inspection programs have staff members familiar with farms, henhouses, and animal welfare, and the UEP's role would be decided by egg producers.

Room for negotiation

Gregory indicated his only regret about the agreement relates to the decision to break from UEP policy of basing all hen welfare decisions on scientific knowledge. Although he thinks sufficient evidence exists to increase the minimum floor space for each bird to 116 square inches, the minimum of 124 square inches was based on negotiation.

Gregory added that enriched colony housing provides similar egg production for each hen in comparison with the typical U.S. cage, and scientists consulted by the UEP have supported the decision to provide 124 square inches of floor space per bird. The size of such enriched cages would, on average, require that hens currently in cages get double the room they now receive, which, he said, had been an important goal for the HSUS during the negotiations.

The American Humane Association, which operates a hen welfare auditing program, praised the endorsement of enriched colony housing but indicated rigorous monitoring and oversight would be needed. The organization questioned the decision to provide 124 square inches for each hen rather than the 116 endorsed by the AHA, used in Europe, and "considered the most progressive in the world."

"Current and widely recognized research has shown that 116 square inches provides space for hens to stand, sit, turn around and extend their wings," Kathi Brock, a director of the AHA farm animal program, said in the organization statement. "We have not seen the science that supports 124 square inches per bird."

Avoiding a precedent

Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau, expressed concern that the legislative process doesn't necessarily create science-based standards. The farm bureau prefers that animal care standards be developed by experts such as animal scientists and veterinarians. Ludlum said that even passing a bill based on current scientific knowledge would create requirements that would not be easily changed as knowledge improves. She also indicated passage of such legislation could provide a new target for animal rights activists regarding other species and unscientific standards.

In the absence of legislation, the farm bureau was still assessing the potential impact of the agreement on egg producers and members of other livestock industries, Ludlum said.

The National Pork Producers Council released a statement indicating legislation such as that proposed by the HSUS and UEP would set a dangerous precedent of allowing the federal government to "dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals" without measurable benefit for human or animal health and welfare. The trade group also lamented that such federal legislation would lead to increased meat prices and force producers to redirect resources from safety and competitiveness to meeting regulations.