A deal first brokered between the United Egg Producers and The Humane Society of the U.S. establishes a single national standard for the treatment of egg-laying hens and the labeling of eggs. The deal originally laid out a timeline for action by June 2012, but now has been extended until the end of the year in hopes that the farm bill may include the agreement.
Egg producers representing 50% of the nation’s egg production capacity were present in Washington D.C. to support S. 3239, the "Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012" in a hearing held by the Senate Agriculture Committee July 26. But not everyone favors a national egg housing standard ranging from egg producers, other livestock groups and even other animal activist groups.
Most notably the bill mandates all conventional cages to be replaced during the next 15 to 18 year phase-in period with new, enriched colony housing systems that provide each egg-laying hen nearly double the amount of current space.
Four members of the United Egg Producers testified, each identifying how the bill proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would impact his operation (read her testimony).
Eric Benson, president of JS West, shared that two of the company’s production houses feature enriched colony housing. The systems have shown lower hen mortality, somewhat better egg production compared to conventional systems and slightly higher feed consumption.
In comments from UEP chairman and Georgia egg producer David Lathem, he noted it was no secret that UEP and The Humane Society of the United States were adversaries. “But once we started to explore whether there might be common ground, they realized we did care about the welfare of our hens. We realized they did care about the survival of family farms.”
The testimony from three of the UEP members outlined that that the patchwork of regulations among different states brings uncertainty that only a national egg standard can fix. Greg Herbruck, executive vice president of Michigan-based Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, said the “private sector alone can’t solve this problem” with the current 24 individual state requirements on egg production. “The only solution is a national standard.”
But Amon Baer, owner of Mendelson Egg Company in Lake Park, Minn., shared that a federal law is not needed. Baer, who serves on the UEP board, has received threats due to his opposition to the bill.
He said he was sympathetic for California producers who have to deal with the standards set after Proposition 2 passed, but that he and other members of the Egg Farmers of America and even members of UEP “shouldn’t be invoiced for the charges racked up by the California Assembly.” He stated the problems of one state or even a handful of states does not justify a federal mandate on all 50 states.
He testified that the bill will essentially kill the small family egg farm. Although the bill exempts producers with flocks of less than 3,000 birds, Baer said his farm of 300,000 layer hens is “small by today’s standards.” He explained it would be difficult for smaller operations to gain the needed capital to meet the new standards and the bill would accelerate consolidation.
Many agricultural groups are opposed to the egg bill, fearing it creates a “slippery slope” of inserting the federal government into how livestock should be raised.
Lathem testified that the egg producers wanted an agreement and “if other livestock sectors do not want a legislative settlement with HSUS, it isn’t going to happen.” The slippery-slope argument also assumes legislators are incapable of making distinctions between commodities.
“The problem with this argument is that it is completely at odds with what Congress has actually done over the years. You have, in fact, always looked at each commodity separately. Dairy is an animal product that has price supports, but you have never seriously considered price supports for beef, pork or eggs. Eggs have always been regulated differently from other animal products,” Lathem told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., voiced concerns on prices as European consumers saw their supply of eggs drop 10-15% soon after their government implemented its version of this law—a decrease which lead to a 55% increase in the price of eggs. But the majority of those testifying said the same would not be the case in the U.S. because of the phased-in approach. Lathem and Feinstein both cited an Agralytica study that showed that the legislation would add less than two cents to the cost of a dozen eggs spread out over an 18-year period.
Feinstein testified the Congressional Budget Office scored the legislation as “no cost.”
Roberts added into the record letters of opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation, a group of four national veterinary organizations, and a letter signed by 94 state and national organizations representing egg, milk, sheep, wool, turkey, pork and beef producers.
Feinstein said the list of supporters of the bill is “13 pages long” and the list includes 14 agriculture and egg producer groups, the four major veterinary groups who look at egg and laying hen issues, five consumer groups, and many more, she testified.
The Humane Farming Assn. (HFA) and other animal protection organizations voiced opposition to the bill and the hearing list. Bradley Miller, HFA national director, said the bill would “preempt state laws, such as California's Proposition 2, and is a direct assault upon egg laying hens', voters', and states' rights."