Proposed Egg Bill Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

On January 23rd, a bill was introduced to the 112th Congress that aims to establish a national standard of welfare for egg-laying hens. The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R.3798) attempts for the first time to codify housing and treatment standards for chickens raised for egg production on a federal level. This bill was written collaboratively by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), an industry trade group representing farmers and companies involved with egg production, marketing, and selling.

We at NARN have taken a look at this bill, and after careful review, we’ve come to the conclusion that this bill as it is currently written is problematic on several levels, and thus our official position is that we do not support it.

If passed, the bill would require cages for egg-laying hens to provide a minimum of amount of 144 square inches of floor space per hen, but both new and existing cages will not be subject to this minimum space requirement until a full 15 years after the bill’s passage.

Currently, the space afforded for battery-cage hens is as little as 67 to 86 square inches (according to current guidelines by the UEP), which is less than the size of a standard sheet of paper. While an increase to the minimum of 144 square inches is larger than what hens currently endure, it translates to only one square foot. For an animal that spends much of her natural life running, hopping, strutting, and being physically active, one square foot per hen still is not enough space, and can hardly be considered a significant increase, much less humane. It would be akin to confining a human being to a floor space the size of a bathtub. According to the Humane Farming Association, a hen needs at least 216 square inches just to spread her wings.

The bill requires existing cages to provide “adequate environmental enrichments” starting fifteen years from passage of the bill. New cages must provide these “enrichments” starting nine years after passage. The bill allows the term “adequate environmental enrichments” to be defined by the Secretary of Agriculture, a position typically staffed by agribusiness executives or supporters (currently the position is held by Tom Vilsack, who as Iowa governor was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and factory farming). This allows the barest concessions, such as plastic strips, to be considered as “nests” and “enrichments,” which will lead the public to believe that hens are living humane lives. The bill also allows egg-carton labeling to include the term “enriched cages” which would deflect public concern and increase egg sales from hens confined in cages. But in reality, hens will continue to live in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Nedim Buyukmihci, professor emeritus of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California-Berkley, says of the bill: “The cages defined by the legislation will in no meaningful way reduce the unimaginable suffering endured by the hens. Hens will still not be able to get proper exercise, they still will be too crowded to even properly stretch their wings, perches will be at an ineffectual height, and nest boxes will not be conducive to the needs for laying eggs.”

So-called “colony” cages, that this bill would codify, allows around 8 hens to be crowded into a cage the size of a file cabinet drawer.

Because of the glacial pace at which these changes would be enacted, it is telling that among those who support the bill are egg producers. The Association of California Egg Farmers, Colorado Egg Producers Association, Florida Poultry Association, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Allied Poultry Industry, and the North Carolina Egg Association support these meager changes because they then will no longer feel economic pressure to enact changes more quickly. As this is a national bill, it will supersede existing state laws that have stronger protections and will slow down the pace of changes that are already occurring due to state and public pressure. Additionally, small producers are exempt from having to enact any of the measures in the bill at all.

While animal advocacy groups such as Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, In Defense of Animals, Compassion over Killing, the ASPCA, and the Humane League support the bill, other animal advocacy groups such as Animal Welfare Institute, Associated Humane Societies, Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), Friends of Animals, Humane Farming Association, and United Poultry Concerns oppose this bill. We are among those who see as problematic the collaboration with an industry that views living sentient beings as mere commodities to be used and abused for economic gain. We do not agree that industry should be allowed to write their own rules and regulations.

The proponents of this bill are hailing this as a “victory” for the animals and say this bill would eliminate battery cages. But there is absolutely nothing in this bill that does so. “Batteries” consist of rows and tiers of identical units; in this case the units are cages, and there is no language at all in the bill that addresses batteries. Egg-laying hens will still be locked inside windowless buildings, crowded in cages stacked from the floor and lined up in long rows, just as they are now. There are no requirements to reduce the use of cages; instead, this bill codifies the use of battery cages. Rather than being “a step in the right direction,” this bill is a dead-end for the future of hens kept for egg-production.

Much work has been done on the state and local level to enact swifter and more comprehensive changes that would significantly reduce the amount of the most egregious abuses by animal-based businesses. This weak federal standard would deny state legislatures the ability to pass laws to outlaw the use of cages or to enact stricter regulations, would deny voters the right and ability to pass initiatives banning cages, and would nullify existing state laws like ones passed in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio.

We encourage you to contact your US Representative (at www.house.gov) to vote against establishing egg factory cages as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote. This bill would keep hens forever suffering in small cages, where they could never engage in the many natural behaviors essential for their most basic health and well being.