By Philip Brasher
July 8, 2011. A stunning, landmark deal between the largest animal rights group and the egg industry would change the way hens are raised in this country. It shouldn't be surprising that it's making others in the livestock industry nervous.
The agreement, announced today, marks a victory for both the industry and the Humane Society of the United States, which has been seeking to use a series of ballot initiatives, most successfully in California, to force some major changes in way that livestock are raised in the United States.
The egg industry has known for some time that the so-called battery cages that are now the standard industry practice would have to be replaced with something more acceptable to the public. But producers didn't want to go cage-free, as HSUS had been pushing, in part because cage-free operations require more and better trained workers. Cage-free hens also need more feed, further increasing production costs. The industry preferred instead to switch to a larger style of cages, known as "enriched colony" housing, that give the birds more room to move around and also include perches and nesting areas. (See photo) The deal announced today between HSUS and the United Egg Producers allows the industry to do just that and gives farms a decade and a half to phase in the new housing.
There's a big catch, however. The two groups agreed to jointly ask Congress for a federal law that set standards and a timeline for the changes, and that legislation will have to pass for the deal to go through. If the bill doesn't pass, "then the agreement would be off and we'd be likely to see more ballot measures, litigation, etc. Both sides want to work together to enact," HSUS' Paul Shapiro told me.
Most hens now have about 67 square inches of space in conventional cages. Under the HSUS-UEP deal that would increase up to 144 square inches.
As HSUS notes, such a law would mark the first time Congress has ever set standards for how any species of animals is raised on farms. No small achievement for HSUS.
The pork industry, which has tangled with HSUS for years over the way sows are housed, doesn't like the idea of federal standards for animal welfare. "It would inject the federal government into the marketplace with no measurable benefit to public or animal health and welfare," the National Pork Producers Council said. The group said it is "gravely concerned that such a one-size-fits-all approach will take away producers' freedom to operate in a way that's best for their animals."
Get some more details of the agreement here, in, of all things I thought I'd never see, a joint statement from HSUS and a major livestock producer group.