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It’s not often in Washington, D.C., that two political adversaries come together and find a solution that is good for everyone involved and good for the nation. That’s just what’s on tap with S. 3239 and H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, which would improve standards for laying hens in the egg industry and is backed by egg farmers, animal advocates, veterinarians and consumers.
Congress is now in a position to implement a policy that solves a controversial problem for a generation or more and has the enthusiastic support of so many key stakeholders.
The welfare of egg-laying hens has been among the most contentious issues that the agriculture industry and animal advocates have clashed over for the past several decades. Both sides have spent millions of dollars on state legislation and ballot measure campaigns, litigation, research and investigations, and more.
Last year, the United Egg Producers, which represents nearly 90 percent of the U.S. egg industry, and the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal welfare group, agreed on a path forward to reform that will result in improved treatment of laying hens and give the industry a greater degree of confidence in the regulatory framework it must abide by.
The legislation will set minimum space and enrichment standards for the care of the nation’s 280 million laying hens — essentially doubling space over time for each hen kept in a conventional cage, banning any methods of molting that withdraw feed and limiting ammonia levels. These bills would also mandate labels on egg cartons informing consumers of the method used to produce eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens” or “eggs from cage-free hens” and “eggs from free-range hens,” which will help consumers make more informed decisions about their purchasing choices.
From the egg producers’ perspective, federal standards are needed because the alternative is a growing patchwork of inconsistent state standards that will restrict interstate movement of eggs, distort competition and put many farmers out of business. Egg producers favor a shift to larger, enriched cages, but only through federal action can a uniform, mandatory national standard be achieved. This bill is a form of regulatory relief from the current patchwork of conflicting state laws.
Since changes to the cages would be phased in over the next 15 to 18 years, many during the normal course of replacing aged equipment, any consumer cost increases are expected to be minor. An economic study conducted by the independent research group Agralytica indicates that the changes are expected to increase consumer prices by less than 2 cents per dozen, spread out over an 18-year period. This slight increase, which will happen years into the future, is much less than natural price fluctuations based on a variety of other factors such as energy, feed and distribution costs.
The legislation is not expected to create any new government programs or add substantial costs to the federal government. The Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970 already regulates the sale of eggs and egg products in interstate commerce, and this legislation would amend that four-decades-old federal statute. The egg industry would be responsible for financing the investments in new housing structures for its egg-laying hens over the next 15 to 18 years.
This proposal deals only with egg-laying hens and has no effect on others in animal agriculture. It amends the Egg Products Inspection Act, a federal statute that already regulates the sale of eggs and does not reach into other agricultural products. This is a matter of self-determination for the egg industry. If this legislation is blocked by other livestock organizations unfamiliar with the science or economics of egg production, some egg farmers in certain states face the very real prospect of going out of business.
The leading scientists familiar with the egg industry embrace the legislation and urge a transition to larger, enriched colony cages. Animal scientist Jeffrey D. Armstrong calls the proposal the “best all around” for hen welfare. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Avian Pathologists and the Association of Avian Veterinarians all support this legislation as the best way forward for science-based animal welfare standards.
This is the sort of problem-solving the country needs. Congress should enthusiastically approve this legislation for the good of farmers, consumers and hundreds of millions of birds.
Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Gene Gregory is president and CEO of United Egg Producers.