By Matt Reese
The answer depends on the individual producer, for now, as enriched cages and other housing systems are voluntary, but that could be changing.
In what remains a shocking paring, animal rights advocates and the nation’s leading egg organizations (most notably the United Egg Producers) have teamed up in support of HR 3798, the “egg bill.” The proposed bill phases in federally mandated standards for laying hen housing, including enriched cages with perches, scratching pads, nesting boxes and other features that allow the hens to express natural behaviors in a group colony setting. The proposed U.S. House bill (with a very similar measure in the U.S. Senate) would basically double the existing per bird space.
As it currently stands, a version of the egg bill has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress and 130 co-sponsors.
“There was talk of attaching it to the farm bill,” said Jim Chakeres, executive director of the Ohio Poultry Association. “We don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but there is a commitment from the leadership in the House and Senate to at least give the bill a hearing and move forward. We had some farmers at a Senate hearing to testify and explain why the bill was needed and why it would benefit both egg farmers and consumers.”
Part of the bill’s support comes from its provisions that establish a very gradual transition period.
“It provides 15 to 18 years, not only for farmers to convert and retrofit existing facilities, but it also allows time for the consumer to get used to the different labeling of eggs,” Chakeres said. “Many people are concerned that in Europe, when they went to this kind of housing, there was a shortage of eggs and prices skyrocketed. That is why we are doing this gradual transition. Every six years there will be certain thresholds and percentages to be met. It is a true compromise with the folks that we have opposed for many years and there is strong science that supports this as well.”
Proponents claim that the egg bill’s one set of standards is better for the birds, producers and consumers while many opponents in other livestock sectors are crying fowl.
“This law would allow us to plan for the future and budget for the capital required to make changes,” said Tim Weaver, of Weaver Brothers in Darke County. “Now we have a patchwork of legislation for
hen housing that varies by state and that makes it hard to plan for the future.”
With state regulations changing all of the time, and considerable investment required to accommodate those changes in the egg business, the certainty of one set of rules could go a long way for the planning purposes of egg farmers.
“Politically I am a conservative and I am hesitant to ask government to be more involved in my life. I think we should solve our problems on our own, but this is one time I think that government should become more involved in industry,” Weaver said. “We have 50 states and we could have 50 different sets of regulations. More than half of the eggs in Ohio are exported out of the state.”
Right now, most of Weaver Brothers’ production is in conventional cages, with some cage-free systems on the farm. While there is some consumer appeal with the cage-free system, it does offer some challenges that can be addressed with the enriched cages that could be mandated with the egg bill.
“There is a pecking order and putting the birds in the enriched cages limits the problems with pecking order,” he said. “In the 1950s, we went to cages for two reasons — animal health and food safety. We eliminated a lot of diseases with the use of cages. We are producing the most wholesome egg we’ve ever produced right now. We have had some minor experiences with some of those animal health issues in cage-free that we haven’t had in a long time. With enriched cages, they are in cages with reduced social structure and they won’t be eating each other’s feces and we won’t have floor eggs that collect bacteria.”
The layer industry has already voluntarily reduced their cage densities to the current 67 square inches per bird. The 15- to 18-year proposed phase-in that could be required by the new legislation would have a final number of 124 square inches per bird in a colony setting of 60, 90 or 120 birds in a cage, depending on the cage size. The on-farm cost of the proposed egg bill, however, is not low. The expense, though, is worth the benefits for Weaver Brothers.
“It will cost us around $25 per hen,” he said. “Our industry doesn’t have a guaranteed return on investment and we’re at the mercy of the grain market and egg market. But, we have been a leader in food safety and we were the first animal species to develop humane guidelines for animal care. Consumers favor enriched cages and we think it will improve production standards for the hens. I think the eggs produced in enriched cages are better than a cage free system. Right now, we have no enriched cages in place, but we are adding them next year because I think that is the right thing to do for the animals. We try to do what is right for animals and the consumer and we do what is best to care for our birds every day.”
There is sentiment from many, though, who view the egg bill compromise as the next step down a slippery slope of government mandates based on consumer whims and extremist views. The egg bill brings some of the arguments from both agricultural supporters and detractors of Ohio’s Issue 2 Agreement between state agricultural groups and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to the national stage. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers have been among the loudest voices speaking out against the egg bill, but Weaver doesn’t see what all of the national fuss is about.
“We’re seeking egg specific changes and for eggs only. I don’t think it sets any precedent that should concern the other species,” Weaver said.
Weaver is also interested in preserving his family legacy on the farm with assurances for the future.
“The business was founded by my grandfather,” Weaver said. “It is my desire to have the next generation have the chance to be in the family business and have the joy of that.”