Federal Bill Would Add Protections for Egg-Laying Hens The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer alone.

Imagine you are a political prisoner in another country sentenced to life in the harsh confines of a foreign prison.  Your holding cell is about the size of an elevator packed with other people, and you can hardly move without touching your cellmates. Your captors torture you by withholding food and water, sometimes for weeks. The stench from the urine and feces is sickening. This is your life, you can barley move, and there is no escape.

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What if people on the outside that promote your rights were trying to pass a law that would improve your situation? This law would require the starving to stop and food and water would always be available. This law would reduce the stench in the air and allow for easier, more comfortable breathing. This law would allow you and your cellmates a larger space, one the size of a small room with benches to sit on. There would be room to move and walk around. It would also label the products that you are forced to make with an explanation that those products came from an intensively confined prisoner, making it less likely that compassionate people would buy that product. You would be grateful for these or any improvements and would desperately hope that the activists worked tirelessly to pass this law that could lessen your suffering.

We now have the opportunity to offer similar relief to the hundreds of millions of egg-laying hens in the U.S. who suffer torture and confinement much worse than most human prisoners ever experience. Chickens in the egg-laying industry endure what are arguably the worst conditions of all farmed animals. Tightly confined in barren battery cages, they are hardly able to move or stretch a wing. The stench of ammonia overwhelms the nostrils in these windowless warehouses where there is no sunlight to warm feathers, no dirt to scratch, no fresh air to breath.

The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 3798) would be the first federal law related to the welfare of chickens on farms and would offer relief to millions of hens in the U.S. egg industry. This bill would:

  • Be the first federal law relating to the treatment of chickens used for food, the first federal law relating to the treatment of animals while on farms, and the first federal law improving the treatment of farmed animals in more than 30 years, providing us with a path to greater legislative opportunities in the future.
  • Give hens double the space they currently have per bird, and add cage enrichments like perching, nesting areas and litter for dust bathing, moving from barren battery cages where they can barely move to enriched colony cages. Are these larger cages “good” or “acceptable”? No, they are not. Are they better? Absolutely.
  • Require housing-related labeling such as “eggs from caged hens” on egg cartons in one year. This federally-required negative labeling has been proven in other countries to reduce demand for eggs from caged hens.
  • Ban starvation-based forced-molting in two years. Tens of millions of hens endure this cruel procedure where food and water are withheld, sometimes for weeks, to manipulate the laying cycle.
  • Require air quality improvements in two years, stating that facilities will have “acceptable air quality, which does not exceed more than 25 parts per million of ammonia during normal operations.”
  • Prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products in the U.S. that don’t meet these requirements.

There is a broad coalition of animal protection organizations supporting this precedent-setting bill including Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing, Animal Legal Defense Fund, In Defense of Animals, The Humane League, Compassion in World Farming, American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Society of the U.S. and more.

Let’s go back to the political prisoner analogy. As you languish in your tightly confined and miserable space, what if you found out that other advocates that claim to speak on your behalf are fighting against the bill that would improve conditions, yet they have no plan to do anything better to relieve your suffering? How would that make you feel? There is a contingent of animal activists who oppose H.R. 3798, saying that it does not go far enough.

In no way does this bill represent a detraction from our common ideal of total animal liberation. Indeed it is a vital step in that direction, for all political and social change happens in incremental stages. However, the challengers are vocal and I would like to address the opposition’s arguments and explain why this bill is the best course of action we can take to protect all hens in the U.S. at this time.

Concern #1

Some activists are concerned that state initiatives are already in place that perceivably go farther, and this federal law would override them. They believe the state measures are moving us toward cage-free, and that this bill will keep hens in cages longer.

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This federal 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 large egg production states where we are very unlikely to be able to provide any relief at all for these hens. State ballot measures are limited to just a few states and do not represent the majority of hens in the U.S.

Furthermore, even if one state supports a cage-free initiative, this does not necessarily guarantee that these standards will be upheld. For example, the victory of Prop 2 in California, the bill that offered more room to veal calves, pigs and egg-laying hens, might end up being interpreted as colony caging as opposed to cage-free as the initiative intended, due to the hostile agriculture lobby and its influence on government. The federal bill has much clearer language and specific numbers giving hens double the amount of space that they currently have and significantly more space than what will likely be interpreted in the Prop 2 wording. Also, following a state-by-state approach, producers could simply move their operations over the state line and set up barren battery cages in another state friendlier to their interests and more hostile to those of animal advocates.

Numbers of birds affected

Let’s look at the top ten egg production states — Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Florida.

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Half of these states — Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Minnesota — do not have state ballot measures– These states hold more than half the hens in the U.S. egg industry. If the opposition kills this bill, these birds will have no relief from barren battery cages and will continue to be forced-molted with no end in sight.

Now let’s look at the states that do have ballot measures: Ohio, California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Florida.

  • The Ohio legislature can repeal any ballot measure and assuredly would repeal a successful laying hen measure.
  • It is unlikely that we’d win in Nebraska, but even if we did, the state government would almost certainly repeal any legislation as they also have that power.
  • Florida requires a 60% majority to win any ballot measure, making it a very risky venture.
  • California and Michigan are already done, and California’s Prop 2 has an uncertain outcome; it will likely be interpreted as less space than the federal bill allows. Neither of the existing legislation has provisions addressing forced-molting, air quality, or labeling.

This is what we face with the state measures. It is simply not as feasible nor as far-reaching as the federal bill, and therefore following a federal strategy is the wisest course of action, as well as being the only truly viable one.

Concern #2

The phase-in period of 15 – 18 years is too long.

The bill has a tiered phase-in that requires improvements every few years. For example, the most important provision, labeling of “eggs from caged hens” on cartons, takes effect just one year after enactment. Then, there are increasing space allotments every few years, as well as enrichments (perches, nesting boxes, etc.), starting at just a few years and going through 15 years.

Most legislation of this type that requires industry improvements has a phase-in period. Prop 2 had a phase-in period of six years (and didn’t require any enrichment). The California ban on foie gras had an eight year phase-in period which will end July of 2012. For a federal bill of this size and scope, the period of time for progress is necessary to achieve enactment, and has improvements much sooner than these other bills because of the tiered phase strategy. One quarter of the industry (70 million birds) would start converting away from barren battery cages within six years; 55 percent (150 million birds) would do so within 12 years and the entire industry (280 million birds) would follow in 15 to 18 years, giving all these hens double the space they have now.

We could not implement all of the desired changes immediately; the legislation simply wouldn’t pass. The alternative is to allow these egregious practices to continue uninterrupted.

Concern #3

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who introduced the bill, has essentially made a “deal with the devil” in forming this alliance with the United Egg Producers (UEP) to pass this bill.

As animal advocates, we would do well to stop considering our opposition as “bad guys,” and instead see them as people who act out of their own perceived (albeit distorted) interests. This is an essential first step for any effective negotiation which is a vital process in social change. If we ever want our movement to be effective, we simply must negotiate. An “all or nothing” strategy will simply leave us with nothing, and the animals will continue to suffer because of our political ineffectiveness.

So why did the UEP agree to the bill? The patchwork of state regulations with diverse rules was problematic for the egg industry, and the HSUS was savvy enough to see this as an opportunity. Knowledgeable animal advocates have positioned the industry so that it would appear to be more beneficial for them to agree to a blanket federal law instead of having to expend their resources to fight each minor battle state by state. This works in our favor because the federal regulation is superior for ALL birds (in terms of them getting more space and other provisions), and leads to a clearly demonstrable decrease in animal suffering.

It is important to note that almost every other major agricultural industry group opposes the bill because they see it as a slippery slope and know that we will demand to go further in creating legislation for other animals raised and killed for food. Some industry groups opposed are the Egg Farmers of America, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Sheep Industry, National Farmers Union, National Turkey Federation and National Milk Producers Federation.

Concern #4

The provisions like no forced-molting and better air quality all ready in place in the egg industry.

Currently there is only a voluntary program though the United Egg Producers that has the standards we have set out in the bill, with no enforcement mechanism. While some producers have this certification, there are a minimum of 60 million birds who do not and are not in this voluntary program. This bill would change these voluntary standards into mandatory law requiring all egg laying hens to benefit from these protections. Within two years, millions of birds will no longer have to endure starvation-based forced-molting.

Concern #5

Enriched cages are no better than barren cages.

It is a fallacy to think that enriched cages are “no better” than barren battery cages. Think back to the beginning of this article and the political prisoner scenario. Imagine being so tightly confined you could barley move and then having twice as much space and a bench to sit on. It does make a difference. Enriched or colony cages are not ideal, they are not even good, but it is the consensus of the majority of the scientific community that they are better than barren cages for the welfare of the birds. When hens live in enriched cages, they lay 90% of their eggs in the nesting boxes and utilize the perches. The “enrichments” are a welcome relief, not to mention the benefits of increase in space, compared to barren cages.

In the European Union, similar legislation banning barren battery cages has been heralded as a significant advancement for hens. The U.S. bill requires more space than the European law. The EU law gives the hens 116 square inches of space. H.R. 3798 offers 124 to 144 square inches of space. Cage-free is estimated as 144 to 216 square inches. Similar legislation in Europe has moved the industry increasingly toward cage-free, and we can expect similar progress in the U.S.

This is a historic piece of legislation. Is it all we want it to be? No. Is it a step in the right direction? Yes!  Is it better than nothing? Absolutely! It is a huge stride that could ease the suffering of hundreds of millions of birds. Does the opposition have a better plan with any realistic chance of success? Unfortunately they do not, because currently there simply is no better opportunity to relieve the suffering of so many animals on such an immense scale. Supporting this bill is supporting vital steps toward ending the misery of all farmed animals.

Please take action for the hens — Contact your congress person and ask them to support H.R. 3798. Click here to find your representative or here to send a message of support.