In a historic announcement last week, the United Egg Producers (UEP) agreed to support the Humane Society’s efforts to pass federal animal rights legislation, introducing a bill that would bar the use of battery cages in farms nationwide and require egg farmers to replace them with larger enriched colony cages. The Humane Society stated that this monumental law would mark “historic and significant progress […] the first time that any species of animal is provided with federal protection from abuse while on factory farms, the first federal farm animal protection law in more than 30 years, and the first time that chickens used in food production are provided any federal protections at all.”
These two organizations are known to constantly disagree with each other, with one seeking humane treatment for animals and the other seeking to maintain a thriving trade that provides food for millions at a low cost, but now they are jointly seeking to reform the egg industry and provide better living conditions for 280 million egg-laying hens.
Chickens and animal rights activists aren’t the only ones who will benefit from this law, though – the UEP has wanted to push for more humane treatment of animals, but has hesitated because participation in their organization is voluntary, and feared that farmers would leave the association rather than reforming their practices. The trade association, which represents 80 percent of American egg farmers, approached the Humane Society to ask if they would co-sponsor a federal bill to prohibit the use of battery cages. In a press release, Indiana egg farmer and UEP Chairman Bob Krouse said that the UEP believes “a national standard is far superior than a patchwork of state laws and regulations that would be cumbersome for our customers and confusing to consumers,” referring to laws that have been passed in four states and pending legislation in Washington and Oregon. California and Michigan have passed laws proscribing battery cages by 2015 and 2012, respectively, while Ohio has banned the construction of new battery cages, but indefinitely permits the continued operation of those already in existence. Arizona has also passed regulations requiring better conditions for chickens. California is the only state to bar the sale of eggs produced out-of-state from hens confined to battery cages to California consumers.
Currently, most hens raised for egg production spend their entire lives contained to 18”x20” cages, with only about 67 square inches of space, while others receive a meager 48 square inches. In these cramped cages, 250 million hens do not have space to run, walk or flap their wings, and are often confined to unsanitary conditions. The new regulations would see a gradual, widespread implementation of enriched colony cages over a period of 18 years as well as an increase of floor space to a minimum of 124 square inches. Enriched colony cages are typically 12’x4’ enclosures with structures that allow hens to express their natural behaviors, such as nesting, perching and scratching. The new cages would collectively cost farmers $4 billion to implement, likely causing the cost of eggs to rise.
The bill would also maintain airborne ammonia levels in barns, ban a current common practice in which chickens are starved for up to two weeks in order to induce a new cycle of egg-laying, and ban the sale of eggs or egg products in the United States that fail to meet the new industry standards. Euthanasia standards would be approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and enforced for “spent” hens, who are typically killed in an inhumane manner. All egg cartons would be labeled with “made from (caged, cage-free or free-range) hens” to allow consumers to make conscious choices about where their eggs come from and how they are produced.
The Humane Society hopes that, if the bill passes in Congress, it will spark a national discussion about animal cruelty and lead to other bills banning cruel practices and regulating the meat industry. Polls show that ninety-seven percent of Americans believe that animal cruelty should be outlawed, but there are no federal animal welfare regulations placed on the farming industry. The debate has already begun across the world — the European Union is set to complete a 10-year phaseout of battery cages by 2012, replacing them with enriched colony cages, and Switzerland became the first country to ban battery cages in 1992.
Photo credit: The Humane Society of the United States (humanesociety.org)