Egg Bill Chances Dimming in Congress

Caged chickensIt seems maybe we started to celebrate too soon. Along with many animal welfare organizations and vegetarian associations, we thought that since the egg producers and consumer groups had reached a solid agreement which had strong bi-partisan backing, that progress would finally be made.  However, federal standards for the welfare of egg-laying hens suffered a defeat when they failed to make it into the farm bill legislation voted out of the agriculture committees in the U.S. House and Senate. The full Senate debated its version of the farm bill this week. Attempts at floor amendments failed, but the standards could come back to life when the farm bill reaches the joint House-Senate conference committee.

Pork and beef producers, however, object in principle to the notion of federal regulation of farm animal housing — even though, in this case, the egg producers themselves are asking for federal regulations as a way to pre-empt state rules that are more troublesome. When the agriculture committees of both House and Senate finished their versions of the farm bill last week, all mention of guaranteed living space for egg-laying hens had vanished.

The setback hurts even more because the agreement grew out of the voter initiative campaign to set animal welfare standards for egg-laying hens right here in Washington, and was led by our friend at the local HSUS chapter, Dan Paul.

To understand how a battery hen lives, stand here for a year.

To understand how a battery hen lives, stand here for a year.

Currently, ninety percent of America’s eggs are laid by chickens that live in long rows of metal wire cages. Each cage holds about eight hens, and they’re packed in pretty tightly. At the henhouse that Dan visited recently, owned by a family-run enterprise in Modesto, Calif., each hen has, on average, 67 square inches – less than the area of a standard sheet of paper. “These birds can’t even spread their wings,” says a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States. “These are living, feeling, sentient animals who are caught up in the food system, and at a bare minimum, they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives; not to be immobilized to the point where they can’t even extend their limbs.”

Ever since cages became standard in the egg industry some 50 years ago, many people have been horrified by them. Despite their outrage, advocates of animal welfare weren’t able to do much against the cages. For egg producers, the cages made economic sense. They made egg production possible on an unprecedented scale, delivering cheap eggs to consumers. Advertising gimmicks, such as “naturally nested,” “free range,” or “cage free,” have little meaning because there are no legal definitions of them and no mechanism for enforcement.

In the Spring of 2011, Dan Paul, director of the Washington branch of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), launched a ballot initiative here in Washington State that would help improve the lives of 6.5 million egg-laying hens living in factory farms in our state. The public response was truly extraordinary, evidenced both by the passion and dedication of the volunteers, as well as the overwhelming positive response from the public.

What his in-state efforts resulted in, however, was an agreement with the United Egg Producers to push a joint effort to pass federal legislation, which in part would give each bird, throughout the entireUS flock, significantly more space to live. Their signature drive prompted the framework to help not only our 6.5 million birds, but every hen throughout this nation – it was a truly staggering result!

The proposed legislation, HR 3798 would culminate with hens nationwide being provided a minimum of 124 to 144 square inches of space, along with the other enrichment improvements. Remember, most birds in the US live in states that do not allow for the initiative process, so an agreement with industry to obtain a federal law is the most likely path to truly end the barren battery cage in the US.

All is not lost. Eventually public concern will win out. But you don’t have to wait until it does.  You can choose to skip the eggs, thus reducing consumer demand and ultimately production as well. There are many egg substitutions on the market, and even more egg-free recipes for favorite dishes for you to enjoy. Both the chickens and your body will be glad you did!