The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) crusade started in California with Proposition 2 three years ago, the first successful attempt by the group to implement a cage-free standard for poultry production.
Egg producers have been scrambling ever since - pun intended.
Although the legislation didn’t mandate cage-free production systems for California producers, the wording was so vague producers looking to expand were unable to determine what met the criteria approved by California voters.
The new agreement clarifies the housing standards for California egg farmers and the right to use enriched colony housing.
UEP staff, members and members of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Animal Welfare have toured European egg farms over the past several years. They found the enriched colony housing as a system that would be “comparable to conventional cages in terms of eggs per hen, feed conversion and livability.” A cage-free system on the other hand has higher feed conversion, lower eggs produced per bird and higher death rates, says UEP President Greg Gregory.
UEP also recognized that the enriched colony provided hens with some improvement in natural behaviors.
Gregory estimates the costs of switching to enriched colony housing could be as much as 10% higher than conventional production, but because the agreement allows for phased-in adoption over the next 18 years, as buildings are replaced or retired, the costs are more manageable.
Equipment companies report that approximately 80% of all cage equipment sold over the past year was of the “enrichable” variety, a sign Gregory points to that the industry is already accepting the system as the choice for the future.
Within four years of enactment of the federal legislation all eggs and egg products must be produced from hens provided by 67 square inches for white hens and 76 square inches for brown hens.
Starting three years after enactment of the law all cages placed in service will require 78 square inches for white birds and 90 square inches for brown birds and eventually reaching 124 inches for white and 144 for brown.
The American Humane Association, considered by many to be a more reasonable, science-based animal welfare group, welcomed the move to enriched colony housing, but questioned the science behind the final inch requirements.
The suggested legislation calls for 124 square inches of space per hen, a slight increase over the science-based standard of 116 square inches endorsed by American Humane Association and used by the European community, 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," says Kathi Brock, a director of American Humane Association's Farm Animal program. "We have not seen the science that supports 124 square inches per bird."
Paul Shapiro, HSUS senior director of farm animal protection, says the level was part of the compromise process. And although there was no science to back it, the 124 figure for white birds is less than the previously agreed upon deal struck with Michigan which requires 144 inches for all birds.
The National Pork Producers Council says the deal sets a “dangerous precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals. It would inject the federal government into the marketplace with no measurable benefit to public or animal health and welfare.”
NPPC as well as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association both pointed to successful voluntary production practice guidelines which have used over the past two decades as a better way to improve animal welfare, rather than mandating on-farm production standards.
HSUS will not initiate, fund, or support any state legislation or ballot measures concerning different space requirements while this agreement is in force, which expires at the end of June 2012. The agreement stopped HSUS latest threats of ballot initiatives in Washington and Oregon.