Agricultural Animal Welfare Laws

06.26.12

A U.S. House bill introduced early this year to improve conditions for egg-laying hens has received renewed attention recently, as Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced an identical proposal in the Senate on May 24. If implemented, the law would require commercial egg producers to meet minimum standards for caging devices and set caging-related labeling requirements to distinguish free-range, cage-free, and caged egg operations. Somewhat less controversial provisions of the bill would also require better air quality standards, more humane methods of euthanasia (i.e., no more throwing live animals into grinders) and prohibit forced molting by starvation. One particularly interesting aspect of the legislation is that it has split both agricultural lobbies and animal welfare groups, creating some unlikely allies on each side of the debate.

Agricultural Producer Organizations

One would generally expect agri-business groups to be opposed to stricter animal welfare laws. What’s unusual about this bill is the fact that those groups that are directly targeted by the legislation, commercial egg producers, largely support the bill, while the bulk of the opposition comes from groups representing producers of other animal products and broad-based agricultural lobbies.

The United Egg Producers (UEP), which claims to represent 88 percent of the commercial egg market, is the main agricultural group supporting the bill, flanked by several state and regional egg producer organizations. The UEP has even created a website to campaign for the bill, www.EggBill.com. While they list the benefits to hens and to consumers (via labeling requirements) among the reasons to support the law, their primary argument is based on the desire for nation-wide uniformity among egg-producer regulations. Currently, states set their own regulations on egg producers, some much more strict than others. And a few states, such as California, require that all eggs sold in the state conform to their standards, regardless of where they were produced. By replacing a patchwork of inconsistent state regulations with a national standard, the UEP argues, the law would streamline compliance, correct market distortions to competition, and reduce barriers to interstate commerce. It is worth noting that the UEP has previously campaigned against stricter state-level caging laws, but it seems their losses have made a uniform compromise more desireable than continuing to fight smaller battles.

The most vocal agricultural opponent of the egg bill is the National Pork Producer’s Council (NPCC), joined by the American Farm Bureau Federation,the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, and other meat and dairy producers. Although the bill would not change regulations for anyone but egg producers, these groups believe the bill would be an unprecidented act of federal intrusion into farming standards that would start a domino effect (the NPCC spells out the metaphor quite clearly in this ad) of regulations throughout the animal industry. As evidence they often cite Wayne Pacelle—president of the Humane Society of the U.S., which partnered with the UEP as the main backers of the egg bill—including in the aforementioned ad his quote, “we have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals.” This is a fairly straw-man-like argument, not to mention the fact that the quote is almost 20 years old and a bit out of context. However, there is some truth to the claim that this is an unprecedented level of federal regulation. There are currently no federal laws requiring a set amount of space per animal for any class of agricultural animals, and it is possible that passage of the law could induce some legislators to introduce similar requirements for pigs or cattle. But since the current egg bill is an amendment to the Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970, federal regulation of eggs is not all that unprecedented.

The other big argument advanced against the egg bill is that the regulations will increase the price of eggs for consumers. Although one study commissioned by the UEP has suggested the price of a carton of eggs will only increase by about two cents, egg bill opponents point to the egg shortages of Europe as evidence of what will happen in the U.S. There, a similar ban on conventional battery cages is blamed for the ten to twenty percent reduction in egg production, as many southern and eastern European egg producers failed to update their cages in time, and a resulting increase in consumer prices ranging from forty to seventy-five percent in different countries. There are a few notable differences, however, between the EU law and the American egg bill that make it difficult to predict how similar the results would be. The scope of the EU law is far broader in that it applies to egg operations of more than three hundred fifty hens, whereas the U.S. bill only covers producers with more than three thousand hens. The U.S. bill would also give producers more time for compliance (eightteen years as opposed to twelve). But given the current economic situation, even an uncertain threat of increased food prices will likely be a significant factor in the argument.

Animal Welfare Organizations

The primary animal welfare proponent of the egg bill is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). As a big supporter of state caging regulations, the HSUS was instrumental in negotiating the compromise with the UEP. They are joined by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Mercy for Animals, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, as well as the generally more moderate professional veterinary associations. For them, the winning aspect of the bill is the elimination of the battery cage arrangements that dominate factory farms, containing over ninety percent of all commercial egg-producing hens in the U.S. Confined in this style of cage, with an average of 67 square inches of floorspace per hen, the hens are prevented from engaging in natural behaviors such as perching, wing-stretching, and often even turning around. This can lead to health issues like osteoporosis and external parasites and to the behavioral abnomalities that cause hens to peck at and cannibalize each other. Within fifteen years, all caged operations would have to approximately double the floorspace per hen and include “adequate environmental enrichments” such as perch space and scratching areas. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that the move to enriched cages would significantly improve the health of hens, and even endorses enriched cages over cage-free arrangements for the prevention of certain diseases and parasites. It is also interesting to note that in the AVMA endorsement, they make a point to comment that voluntary transition to more humane caging is preferable, but cite the market inefficiencies of conflicting state regulations to justify federal intervention.

While it seems like the elimination of battery cages should please all animal advocates, groups like the Humane Farming Association (HFA), Friends of Animals, and United Poultry Concerns don’t like the trade-off involved, and have dubbed their campaign “Stop the Rotten Egg Bill.” To them, the defining piece of the legislation is a clause pre-empting state or local regulations that go beyond the requirements of the federal bill (which is what the UEP gets out of the compromise). The HFA argues that the bill represents an attempt to keep hens in cages forever, and derides the notion of “enriched” cages, saying “a cage is a cage” in this somewhat creepy ad featuring anthropomorphic chickens. There is some merit to this claim. Even though the bill would double the existing average amount of space per hen, the space requirements proposed are all still one square foot or less. The majority of hens would still be confined in factory-style operations on wire floors and would never set foot outside. And we can see from photos put out by enriched-cage proponents—so presumably among the most flattering photos available—that the hens are not exactly living luxurious or natural lifestyles. Interestingly, by opposing the federal egg bill, these groups are rejecting a small or moderate improvement in conditions for the vast majority of hens, in favor of trying to win more significant improvements on smaller scales. Currently, no state other than California—which is given a special section in the federal egg bill with their own requirements—has passed or is considering passing caging requirements that require more space than the federal proposal.

Future of Animal Caging Laws

The future of the egg bill is likely doomed; as the Senate declined to incorporate it as an amendment in their version of the Farm Bill on June 19, supporters have called for redoubled efforts in the House, where it languishes in a committee headed by an opponent of the bill. Yet we may see animal confinement as a nation-wide uniformity issue again as states consider other stricter animal welfare regulations.

For example, pork producers could find themselves in the same situation as the UEP. Nine states, including California, Colorado, and most recently Rhode Island, have already enacted bans on the use of gestational crates for pregnant sows. These crates measure six feet long by two feet wide, which keeps the pigs practically immobilized for periods of up to four months, causing the pigs to endure bone and muscle deterioration, sores from lying in their own waste, and extreme psychological stress. The push against gestational crating has gained traction lately, with several large restaurant and grocery chains—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Kroger, and Safeway—encouraging or requiring suppliers to phase out the crates, and New Jersey is considering (and likely to pass) a law to specifically ban gestational crating of sows.

Some states, like Massachusetts and New York, are making the confinement issue even broader with laws prohibiting confining or tethering an animal in a manner that prevents the animal from turning around, lying down, standing, or stretching its limbs. Both of the laws would make violation a criminal misdemeanor, and would apply to egg producers and pork producers alike, along with every other agricultural animal (although both laws would allow gestational crating of sows for the last week of expected pregnancy, and make exceptions for short-term confinement for routine purposes and for transportation of animals). Most of the existing and proposed animal confinement laws also specifically target veal, consumption of which has been declining for decades following a 1980s public information campaign by animal rights groups depicting the incredibly restricted movement of veal calves. And foie gras has received renewed attention recently, as a California law, passed in 2004 but scheduled to come into effect on July 1, 2012, bans the practice of gavage (force-feeding through a tube) and the sale of foie gras produced in this method. Considering these trends at the state level, it may not be long before other commercial producers of animal products go the way of the United Egg Producers in wanting a uniform national standard.

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