By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Industry lobbyists are working hard to get federal legislation passed that would standardize how laying hens are housed.
House Resolution 3798 was introduced in January, and it’s been referred to the House Agriculture Committee. The main feature of the bill is it would require most owners of egg-laying operations to house their hens in so-called “enriched cage” settings. Such housing gives the birds more room to flock together, move around and engage in natural behaviors.
It is codification of an agreement between United Egg Producers (UEP), a trade association for large egg producers, and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). George House, executive director of the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries (MAPI), is in favor of the bill.
“We support the concept of having federal legislation that establishes uniform standards for the egg laying industry,” he said. “The UEP is behind this.”
Last year the UEP and HSUS announced their decision to push for a bill; their joint recommendation includes mandatory enriched cage systems for all but the smallest producers.
Originally, HSUS was opposed to any system requiring cages. But in the announcement HSUS chief Wayne Pacelle said passing the bill would be a “historic improvement for hundreds of millions of animals per year.”
Bob Krouse, chair of the UEP, said a uniform standard would be better for everyone instead of a “patchwork of state laws and regulations that would be cumbersome …”
House said large commercial egg producers aren’t afraid of competition from small-scale egg producers; rather, small operators are a threat because of their lack of biosecurity. Backyard hobbyists and very small-scale operators either won’t or can’t protect their birds against pathogens the way large-scale operators can, he said. House said opposition to the bill from small producers is a “non-issue.”
But there is opposition to the bill, both from farmers as well as animal rights activists. While most commercial egg producers are in favor of the compromise, some others have gotten together to oppose it.
Naming themselves the Egg Farmers of America, the group sent a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Ag Committee opposing HR 3798 in December. They were joined by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc., National Pork Producers Council and several other major agriculture groups.
The letter urged the committee to “reject additional, costly and unnecessary animal rights mandates proposed by the Humane Society of the United States.” The letter goes on to say the HSUS-UEP agreement would require replacement of 90 percent of egg housing currently in use and force new capital investment of nearly $10 billion.
Another group opposed to the bill is run by Erik Helland, a former hog farmer who’s based near Des Moines, Iowa. The group has been pushing its anti-HR 3798 agenda on its website, called Protect the Harvest.
“It grew out of Proposition B in Missouri,” Helland said. “A group of us said, ‘It’s time to go on the offensive.’ We decided to tell our side of the story.”
Helland describes the group as “mostly cattle guys.” He said the group’s name is “exactly that. It’s protecting the harvest, it’s protecting the rural way of life.” He said the UEP has been bullied into its agreement with HSUS.
“If they were going to stop there it would be one thing, but they’re going to litigate until they put animal agriculture out of business,” he added. “HSUS is very, very aggressive propaganda warfare. Their tactics are abusive, unfair and relentless. It’s eggs now. They’re not content to focus on just one industry.
“You’re starting to see more groups pop up like this. I think what it means is people are starting to say, ‘We’ve had enough.’”
Opposition to the bill isn’t restricted to farmers. Animal rights groups that don’t believe in the compromise are upset as well. The Humane Farming Assoc. (HFA), for example, last week accused the UEP of going along with the deal to further its own alleged price-fixing agenda. Bradley Miller, national director of the HFA, said the deal could provide legal cover for the UEP’s schemes.
“According to the bill’s own sponsor, this bill has been introduced to protect the economic interests of the egg industry,” Miller said. “The American public overwhelmingly supports the banning of egg factory cages, not measures such as this which subvert the will of the people.”