It’s been nearly a year now since the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers decided to put down their arms and work together toward better conditions for egg-laying hens that both can agree on. Today they came out in a tandem endorsement of S. 3239, a bill introduced by the Senate in an attempt to improve the lives of hens through the phasing in of enriched colony housing systems to replace the cramped battery cages that currently serve as the national standard.
S. 3239, also known as the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, was presented to the U.S. Senate by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), with a bipartisan selection of senators including Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Scott Brown, (R-MA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), David Vitter (R-LA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) signing on as cosponsors. Its primary requirements are to double the space allotted to each egg-laying hen through the use of colony housing – bringing the nationwide standard for square inches per hen up from 48 to a minimum of 124 square inches per white hen and 144 square inches per brown hen – and to provide hens with environmental enrichments like perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas that will reduce stress by allowing the hens to act on natural behaviors and instincts. In addition, S. 3239 prohibits feed- and water-withdrawal molting tactics and excessive ammonia levels in hen houses.
So far, the piece of legislation has been endorsed by a variety of organizations including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Farm Sanctuary, and various state-based egg producer associations. The Humane Society and the UEP in particular are hailing as a step in the right direction:
“This legislation will help ensure the American consumers continue to have a wide variety and uninterrupted supply of eggs at affordable prices,” said Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, which represents farmers who produce nearly 90 percent of the eggs in the U.S. “Our industry is being endangered by the growing patchwork of differing and contradictory state laws and ballot initiatives that are impeding the free flow of interstate commerce in eggs that is so vital to grocers, restaurateurs, food manufacturers and consumers.”
“This legislation is a compromise between HSUS and UEP, with both organizations stretching themselves in order to find a solution that’s good for animal welfare, for the industry, and for the nation as a whole,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “There’s no reason for Congress to do anything but enthusiastically embrace this sort of problem-solving by the primary stakeholders.”
That’s not to say that the bill is going to be met with all open arms. The House of Representatives introduced a counterpart bill in January, H.R. 3798, which has drawn criticism from animal advocacy groups like the Humane Farming Association (HFA), Friends of Animals, and United Poultry Concerns for not going far enough to protect the welfare of egg-laying hens and compromising the Humane Society's usual vigilance in fighting poultry abuse. Critics have also claimed that federal legislation like S. 3239 or H.R. 3798 would steamroll more progressive statewide actions like California’s Proposition 2.
We reached out to the Humane Society and United Egg Producers for a response to these allegations. In regard to criticism favoring state legislation over federal mandates, UEP spokesperson Mitch Head responded: “A patchwork quilt of differing, and often contradictory, state regulations regarding the production, sale, and labelling of eggs would be confusing and costly to consumers, grocers, restaurants and egg farmers. There is still disagreement (and lawsuits) challenging even what housing system would be allowed under Prop. 2 in California ...so a single, national standard that everyone can agree upon is preferable.”
“Consumers will still have the choice of purchasing cage-free or free range eggs, for those who would prefer them and can afford them,” Head continued. “Currently less than 10% of consumers purchase such eggs, so we don't believe that would be a reasonable expectation for an industry to adopt that as the national standard. In addition, those eggs are much more expensive to produce (retail prices are double or triple compared to regular eggs now) and that would be a prohibitive expense for many consumers, especially lower income families.”
If the bill is approved and put into action, egg farmers will be given a window of 15 to 18 years to phase in the new chicken living situation – though it promises that some states (like Prop 2’s California) will move along at a more rapid clip to keep pace with state initiatives.
UPDATE: Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, also responded to criticism of the bill. "All of the major backers of Prop 2 endorse this legislation. The Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and more," he notes, also pointing out that how Proposition 2 will be applied is still under debate. "The industry—and its allies in the California government—are arguing that it means far less space than what this national standard would be. There’s a real question as to whether Prop 2 will be watered down by hostile state agricultural officials. It’s very far from given that Prop 2 will mean what you and I would hope. That pains us—since HSUS spent multiple millions on the campaign and I devoted my whole life to the campaign for nearly two years—but it’s reality."
"As to setting a national space standard for space, it’s important to avoid the illusion that states are lining up to ban cages for laying hens," he adds. "The vast majority of U.S. egg-laying hens live in states where we have no pathway to provide them with any legal protection whatsoever (i.e., there's no ballot measure option and little political will among lawmakers in those states). If anything, these big egg production states (e.g., Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, etc.) are more likely to ban investigations of factory farms rather than cages on factory farms... This legislation offers the opportunity not just to help millions of birds in one state, but hundreds of millions of birds in all 50 states in one fell swoop, including big egg production states where we are very unlikely to be able to provide any relief at all for hens otherwise."
For further information, he offered a brochure detailing the benefits of the legislation as well as a letter from agribusiness groups voicing their opposition.