Last year, this magazine reported that United Egg Producers, the largest industry group for egg producers, established larger cage-size standards for laying operations. It was greeted warmly by animal rights organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States.
Last week, legislation supported by HSUS and others was submitted to the U.S House of Representatives to set federal standards for the welfare of egg-laying hens. It was submitted by Oregon Representative Kurt Schrader. The bill is based on the agreement between Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers.
With that United Egg agreement, HSUS agreed to forego trying to pass state ballot initiatives that would dictate egg production practices and to stop 10 years of litigation against and undercover investigations of the egg industry in exchange for egg producers nearly doubling the size of their cages for laying hens. However, HSUS just shifted its strategy.
In addition to cage sizes, the bill, H.R. 3798, includes labeling requirements for eggs and new air-quality standards for hen houses. The standards would allow for larger, enriched-colony cages and phase out smaller cages over 15 to 18 years at what the United Egg Producers has estimated to be a cost of $4 billion. Others estimate the cost to be closer to $10 billion.
The bill would regulate cage sizes, and, according to opposing agricultural groups, set a dangerous precedent for all livestock industries. Groups rising in opposition to it include American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Association, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation. They call the legislation costly and unnecessary animal rights mandates.
National Pork Producers Council criticized the legislation noting that it would prescribe cage sizes for egg-laying hens and set a "dangerous precedent". "This HSUS-backed legislation could let Washington bureaucrats dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals," responded NPPC President Doug Wolf. "We don't need or want the federal government and HSUS telling us how to do our jobs."
"This one-size-fits-all farm takeover bill is government intrusion on family farms at its worst and is unnecessary," he added. "If enacted, it would open Pandora's Box for special interest groups to pursue similar federal laws on pig farmers, dairy farmers and other family farming operations."
NPPC says the legislation would take away producers' freedom to operate in ways that are best for their animals, make it difficult to respond to consumer demands, raise retail food prices and take away consumer choice, devastate small and niche producers and, at a time of constrained budgets for agriculture, redirect valuable resources from enhancing food safety and maintaining the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture to regulating on-farm production practices for reasons other than public and animal health.
"Treating farm animals humanely is an age-old principle for American farmers, and it's a standard that doesn't require an act of Congress," said Wolf. "Unnecessary legislative mandates will only add financial burdens on American consumers and family-owned small businesses that are struggling in a fragile economy."