The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Historic day for hens

December 11, 2011


A cage with perch “enrichments”; courtesy HSUS

2016 UPDATE:  This legislation did not pass, reportedly because of resistance from non-poultry agricultural industries, and it is now dormant. We’ll update you if it returns to the public eye.

October 1, 2011

We don’t cover egg production on Humaneitarian (yet) but wanted to share this major news.

The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States have long been adversaries. The UEP is a cooperative of American egg farmers who raise 95% of all laying hens, most of which are tightly confined in empty (barren) cages to maximize egg production. The HSUS is the leading voice for animals in factory farms, working to pass legislation that improves living conditions.

You can imagine their differences. As the Huffington Post said, “If they had announced that they were agreeing on the best shape of pasta, it would have been news.”

Yet on July 7, these two organizations agreed to jointly push for new federal legislation that would improve the lives of laying hens. If passed, the legislation would:

  • Phase out the use of barren battery cages, which have nothing for the birds to perch on or nest in
  • Require new hen housing that would help birds better engage in natural behaviors by giving them double the space they’re allowed now and by providing structures for perching, nesting and scratching (“enrichments”)
  • Ban forced molting, a process by which chickens are starved for a period of up to two weeks to induce egg laying
  • Mandate that all egg cartons sold in the U.S. indicate how the eggs were produced (i.e., “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” etc.)
  • Mandate euthanasia standards for hens that are no longer producing eggs
  • Prohibit excessive ammonia levels in hen houses (this will be good for workers, too)
  • Prohibit the sale of any eggs or egg products in the U.S. that don’t meet these requirements

The agreement marks a willingness among industrial egg farmers to move in a more humane direction. (Attention, eaters: your choices do make a difference.) The law would also bring American egg farming in line with what the European Union is now requiring. And it would be the first federal law relating to the on-farm treatment of any farm animal.

However, there is disagreement within the animal welfare community about whether this is the best approach to take. As outlined in this statement by the Humane Farming Association, some groups believe that the amount of space allotted each bird will still be too small for adequate movement and that the law would give the impression that cages are acceptable. (The HSUS maintains that cage-free eggs will still be more desirable to consumers and that food companies will continue to switch over to cage-free eggs — as Subway, Denny’s, and other chains have.) On the other side of the coin, some in the meat industry believe this will be a “slippery slope” leading to more regulation of American farming, even though there are a slew of agriculture laws already in place that govern food safety, slaughter practices, etc.

For its part, the UEP sees greater efficiency. “We know that the enriched cages seem to have a lot of advantages over traditional cage systems, and they also have some advantages over cage free,” a UEP spokesman told the Huffington Post. “There’s also the fact that a single national standard is preferable to a patchwork of state regulations — for our producers, our customers and for consumers.”

What do you think?  Should improvements for farm animals come through baby steps or big leaps?  You can read more about the agreement here and comment here.

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