Congress considers US egg production standards

Despite concerns, AVMA supports House bill that codifies UEP-HSUS agreement on hen welfare
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By year's end, two unlikely allies want Congress to pass a controversial law they say will improve the treatment of an estimated 280 million egg-laying hens and ensure the sustainability of the U.S. egg industry.

The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments (H.R. 3798) codifies an unprecedented agreement the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers reached over the treatment of the nation's layer hens.

Many livestock and farm groups call H.R. 3798 an unwelcome precedent for federally mandated on-farm production practices. But supporters of the bill, including the AVMA, say the proposed standards will enhance hen welfare and are in line with changes the egg industry is expected to adopt in the near future.

hen housing
Legislation pending in Congress gives egg producers up to 18 years to begin housing hens in larger cages and providing environmental enrichment. (Courtesy of United Egg Producers)

Last year, the HSUS and UEP proposed a series of national standards for egg producers—a first for any livestock industry (see JAVMA, Sept. 1, 2011). That plan was formally introduced in the House of Representatives Jan. 23 by Dr. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, the only veterinarian currently serving in Congress.

Dr. Schrader praised the UEP-HSUS agreement as "an important and necessary step in addressing the patchwork of state laws facing the industry and providing stability for farmers moving forward."

The standards laid out in H.R. 3798 would be phased in over a 15- to 18-year period. In that time, U.S. egg producers would have to switch to hen cages nearly twice the current size and that contain perches, nesting boxes, or other forms of environmental enrichment.

Notably, H.R. 3798 stipulates California egg producers must begin meeting the housing standards by January 2015, the same deadline set by a successful 2008 ballot initiative on ending the use of conventional hen cages in the state. Compliance with environmental enrichment standards would be required in California by December 2018.

If Congress were to pass Dr. Schrader's bill, within two years induced molting would be prohibited and compliance with AVMA-sanctioned euthanasia guidelines for egg-laying hens would be mandatory. The bill also sets limits on ammonia concentrations in henhouses and requires egg cartons to feature labels informing consumers about the living conditions of the hens that produced the eggs.

Flocks of fewer than 3,000 hens would be exempt from the requirements. Otherwise, producers who don't comply with the law would be prohibited from selling eggs and egg products.

As of press time in February, four lawmakers were co-sponsoring H.R. 3798, which has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, of which Dr. Schrader is a member.

The UEP claims to represent producers who own approximately 95 percent of the nation's egg-laying hens. The trade association believes a national standard is preferable to the various state laws and regulations currently governing egg production in this country. With national standards, hen welfare would continue to improve, the regulatory requirements on producers would be streamlined, and the origins of the eggs consumers purchase would be understood, according to the UEP.

Besides the AVMA, the American Association of Avian Pathologists and a small number of state agriculture and egg producer groups have endorsed the bill, as have several animal welfare advocacy organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

"The HSUS and UEP have been long-time adversaries but have come together and identified a solution that balances animal welfare and the economic realities of the industry," said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO.

Backers of H.R. 3798 note the standards the legislation proposes are based on recommendations of the UEP Scientific Advisory Committee. But the American Farm Bureau Federation sees the bill as an attempt to replace science-based animal care practices with government control.

"The bill ignores the science supporting the consensus among mainstream agricultural veterinarians, animal scientists, and livestock producers," AFBF President Bob Stallman said. "We see this legislation as an attempt by a radical animal rights group to legitimize a policy package that will undoubtedly be used to bully other livestock producers."

Despite "significant concerns" about federal oversight for animal housing and management on the farm, the AVMA is backing H.R. 3798 because available science suggests the proposed standards are likely to improve the lives of egg-laying hens.

The AVMA Executive Board voted in favor of supporting the bill after extensive deliberation Feb. 10. The standards are consistent with AVMA policy as well as industry expectations about changes in egg production practices, the board reasoned.

Additionally, the AVMA board approved of the provision providing egg producers ample time to make the necessary improvements—changes that might not have been possible under alternative scenarios.

The AVMA pledged to work to ensure that implementation of the legislation results in the expected animal welfare improvements, is reasonable, and minimizes any adverse impacts on producers, associated industries, and consumers.