Egg Producers Push for Layer-hen Regs

A House bill would increase living-condition standards for layer hens on large-scale farms, though many agriculture organizations argue it’s not enough.

by Dani Yokhna
Hand holding two white eggs
Photo by Rachael Brugger
If passed, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 would set new living standards for layer hens on large-scale farms as well as new labeling requirements for egg cartons.

With a bill introduced earlier this winter, egg producers, animal-welfare advocates and legislators are attempting to stitch together the patchwork of laws currently governing egg farmers across the United States.

The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 3798) will require egg producers on farms with 3,000 hens or more to approximately double the cage space allotted per hen and make other animal-welfare improvements during a multi-year transitional period. The bill was introduced in Congress Jan. 23, 2012, by Rep. Kurt Schrader, of Oregon, and Reps. Jeff Denham, Elton Gallegly and Sam Farr, of California.

If passed, H.R. 2793 would:

  • require conventional cages be replaced with enriched colony housing systems that provide white-egg layer hens with a minimum of 124 square inches of space and comparatively larger brown-egg layer hens with 144 square inches. (Currently, the majority of caged layer hens are provided 67 square inches, with up to 50 million receiving 48 square inches.)
  • require that all layer hens be provided with environmental enrichments, such as perches, nest boxes and scratching areas, that allow them to express natural behaviors.
  • require labeling on all egg cartons to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs (“eggs from cage-free hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” et cetera).
  • prohibit feed- or water-withdrawal molting to extend the laying cycle (a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program).
  • require American Veterinary Medical Association-approved euthanasia standards.
  • prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses.
  • prohibit the transport and sale of eggs and egg products that don’t meet these requirements.

Several agriculture organizations have expressed opposition to H.R. 3798, including the Egg Farmers of America, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Sheep Industry Association, National Turkey Federation, National Milk Producers Federation and National Farmers Union.

The organizations sent their objections in an email on Dec. 6, 2011, to Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts, chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate ag committee. In the letter, the organizations argued that the proposed standards would not promote “true animal welfare” because of their inability to be adapted to different farming models. They also expressed concerns over the law’s labeling component, which would tighten restrictions while further adding to the cost of production.

“While we think this proposal is an unconscionable federal overreach, our gravest concern is that this precedent could leach into all corners of animal farming, irreparably damaging the livelihood of family farmers across the country,” they wrote.

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Nonetheless, Mitch Head, spokesperson for the United Egg Producers, which represents the interests of farmers who produce 88 percent of the nation’s eggs, says that the 21st-century marketplace makes federal egg-production legislation a necessity. In recent years, individual states have legislated often-conflicting egg-production standards. These regulations frequently apply not just to eggs produced but also those sold in state.

“It’s a problem for farmers, grocers and restaurant chains involved in interstate commerce,” Head explains.

In developing a proposal for Congress, UEP collaborated with the Humane Society of the United States. The UEP/HSUS partnership raised eyebrows in both the agricultural and animal-welfare-activism communities, as the two groups have long operated at cross-purposes.

“Obviously, [UEP and HSUS] were at odds for many years,” Head says, citing “millions of dollars spent each year on proposing our own points of view.” In negotiating a legislative proposal, however, he says the two groups were able to meet “somewhere in the middle that’s reasonable for everybody. … We learned from each other.”

The bill calls for per-hen space to increase in a tiered phase-in period of around 15 to 18 years. (California’s phase-ins would be more rapid due to a ballot initiative already approved by the state’s voters.) Head says UEP, HSUS and other stakeholder organizations are hopeful that the length of the phase-in period—as well as the extreme specificity of the legislation—is intended to prevent the kind of chaos that unfolded in Europe earlier this year, when the EU’s Welfare of Laying Hens directive took effect.

The directive, introduced in 1999, stated that “conventional, traditional cages [would] not be allowed starting in 2012,” Head explains.

Because of the directive’s lack of clarity as to what would be allowed, as well as the EU”s failure to develop a strictly enforced, multi-tiered phase-in period, an estimated 30 percent of egg farmers in the EU were still using conventional cages at the turn of the new year.

In addition to having the support of UEP, HSUS, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and numerous state agricultural and egg-producer groups, Head says a pair of UEP-commissioned surveys indicates that H.R. 3798 will be well-received by consumers, as well.

As part of the first survey, 1,000 registered voters were shown photos of conventional and enriched cages and educated about the positives and negatives of each (including the higher cost to consumers associated with enriched cages). Head reports that 76 percent of respondents preferred enriched cages, whereas only 6 percent expressed preference for the conventional cage. In the second survey, they were asked specifically about the legislation, Head says. Investigators found that two-thirds support federal legislation to establish a national standard.

Head stresses that the legislation’s focus is on larger-scale producers who use cages in their operations—not small-scale farmers, cage-free egg producers or organic, free-range producers.

“UEP represents egg farmers, and our board of directors voted to enter this legislative process because this is what’s good for us as egg farmers … and what’s in the best interest of grocers, food-service companies and customers.”


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