WASHINGTON (AP) — The freedom of a hen to flap its wings and move around became an issue of congressional concern Thursday as a Senate committee discussed legislation to set national standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens.
The debate over how much space hens should have in their coops has drawn the attention of other livestock producers who fear that they'll be the next target of animal welfare advocates, and has become a states' rights issue as some states try to impose their tougher standards on eggs coming from other states.
"This is a practical, fair-minded deal that solves a real problem for the egg industry," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. She was promoting her legislation that would increase the size of henhouses and require egg labeling so consumers will know how the hens were raised.
Her effort to create national standards is in part the result of an initiative passed by Californians in 2008 that required that hens be able to stretch their wings and turn around. At least five other states have enacted similar rules, creating a patchwork of standards that has complicated operations for egg producers.
Greg Herbruck, a poultry farmer from Michigan, told the packed hearing room that his farm sells eggs in 30 states and that with individual state standards "we could have to have a chicken house for every state."
The legislation was also patterned after a compromise reached last year between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers, whose members produce 90 percent of all eggs sold in the United States.
David Lathem, chairman of United Egg Producers and a Georgia poultry farmer, said the deal would allow his industry to plan for the future where "the American public is interested as never before in where food comes from."
He denied that there would be a "slippery slope" where animal welfare groups, if successful in changing how hens are raised, next go after other livestock industries.
The president of the Human Society, Wayne Pacelle, told The Associated Press that he was confident the legislation could be added to a farm bill pending in the House. He said the compromise his group reached with the egg growers was "a model for solving other conflicts that exist in our country." The two groups, he said, "spent tens of millions of dollars against each other and now we have found a common path forward that is good for animal welfare and provides the certainty that egg groups desire. "
Groups representing beef and pork industries have come out against Feinstein's bill, and a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., arguing that they might be the next target of federal legislation. Lathem said poultry farmers, unlike other animal producers, are willingly seeking uniform standards.
But Amon Baer, a former United Egg Producer board member who is now part of a small group, Egg Farmers of America, that opposes the legislation, warned that it could drive small farmers out of business, increase consumer prices, affect other industries and lacked scientific justification.
The issue also split the committee head, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the bill, and the top Republican, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who spoke of the "unintended consequences" of possibly lower productivity, enforcement difficulties and higher prices. He said the European Union saw a drop in supply of 10 percent to 15 percent and a 55 percent increase in egg prices after implementing a similar law.
Supporters said the price jumps seen in Europe would be avoided because the Feinstein bill gives farmers 18 years to increase the size of hen cages. The measure would also outlaw the practice of depriving hens of food and water to increase egg production, set minimum air quality standards for hen houses and require that egg cartons stipulate whether eggs come from hens that are caged, cage-free, free-range or housed in enriched cages.
According to the United Egg Producers, the majority of the nation's 280 million hens are now provided 67 square inches of space, with roughly 50 million receiving 48 square inches. After the phase-in, the birds would have a minimum of 124 to 144 square inches of space.
Disagreements over the bill resulted in it being kept out of the five-year farm and food bill that the Senate passed in June and the House Agriculture Committee farm bill approved this month.
But the House bill does contain an amendment, proposed by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, aimed at the California rules for hen raising. His measure would bar states from requiring agriculture producers in other states to meet specific production standards before they can sell their goods. About 30 percent of the eggs sold in California come from Iowa.