Both sides are carefully calling the agreement between the nation’s egg producers and HSUS leadership a “victory.” For industry, that means that two ballot measures set for November that would have asked Oregon and Washington voters to ban the use of cages in egg production will now be withdrawn.
Why? Mostly because the odds of victory were looking less certain for HSUS.
In Oregon, under a new law, (originally Senate Bill 805) signed by Oregon’s Gov. John Kitzhaberon June 17,commercial farm owners or operatorswould be prohibited from confining egg-laying hens in cages that fail to comply with new rules adopted by state Department of Agriculture. The lawspecifically states that:
“Each egg-laying hen has at least 1½ half square feet ofindividually usable floor space; and that an egg-laying hen has sufficient space to fully extendand flap both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or another egg-laying hen; that hens can turn around freely, meaning that an egg-laying hen isable to turn in a complete circle without any impediment andwithout touching the side of an enclosure or another egg-laying hen; and that an egg-laying enclosure not be stacked or otherwise placed above or below anotherenclosure.”
That is essentially the same language that HSUS has consistently used to backstop its relentless campaigning for a ban on so-called battery cages in egg production. “Hens must have the ability to express their natural behaviors,” the HSUS website states—as is, “turning around freely in a complete circle without any impediment.”
Greg Satrum, owner of Willamette Egg Farmsin Canby, Ore., and president of the Northwest Poultry Council, noted that his company operates both conventional egg-laying barns and newer barns that provide the enriched cages. “We’re eventually moving toward using the enriched cages at our operations,” he said.
Oregon consumers have responded well to the sales of eggs produced by hens at Willamette’s enriched housing operation, Satrum added.
So it’s safe able to assume thatthe impact HSUS’s planned ballot initiative in Oregon this fall that would have prohibited all cages on commercial egg farms might not emerge as a top priority for voters there, even in a state known for its progressive stance on many issues.
Veterinarians just say no
Meanwhile, in Washington state, when the leadership of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association met in April 2011, they heard four presentations representing all sides of the cages on egg farms issue—including the merits of a bill in the Washington legislature (SB 5487) and HSUS’s proposed ballot initiative I-1130 that would ban the use of cages in egg production (see, “When HSUS Comes to Town,” Feb. 17, 2011).
Despite the personal appearance of HSUS campaign director Paul Shapiro, senior director of HSUS’s “factory farming” campaign, none of Washington’s veterinary community was willing to support the proposed ban.
Here’s how Dr. Debi Wallingford, a past president of the WSVMA, put it in a statement to the media:
“The [HSUS] initiative offers no plan for audit, no clear scientific standards or structure specifically researched to improve the lives of laying hens, and no additional empowerments for enforcement,” she said in a statement. “We felt it was important for the public to realize those facts because a vote to simply eliminate cages could drive the seven major producers and 6.5 million laying hens out of Washington and into states with even less protections for hen welfare; something we oppose.If that happens, some 1,500 jobs would be lost and about a $285 million economic impact and $47 million loss in employee earnings.”
And egg production could also end up being outsourced to Mexico, where animal welfare standards are far less standardized.
The Washington veterinarians also noted that HSUS’s proposed Initiative 1130 did not take into account the “availability of eggs recognized as the single most accessible form of high quality protein in the human diet.”
But most importantly, the vetsnoted that cage-free systems might end up being less humane than the enriched housing systems HSUS’s ballot initiative would ban. The American Veterinary Medical Association has affirmed that hens on cage-free egg farms have higher rates of disease, death and parasitic infestations.
A similar situation arose when HSUS led the movein 2009 to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. AVMA predictedthat the ban would decrease horse welfare, since animals would be shipped for slaughter to Mexico—which is exactly what has happened. According to a recent study in the Journal of Animal Science, some tens of thousands of U.S. horses are still slaughtered for food—only now they’re trucked great distances to Canada or Mexico.In 2000, virtually no horses were exported to Mexico for slaughter. Last year, 50,000 made the trip, and another 50,000 (or more) have been abandoned to starvation or killed on site by horse owners unable to care for their animals, but unable to sell them for meat.
So in the end, the HSUS initiative would drive Washington farmers out of business, cost the state and its residents multi-millions in lost economic value, force consumers to pay significantly more for eggs, decrease animal welfare and in the end, reduce local food production by outsourcing a thriving in-state farming sector elsewhere—including to foreign countries.
On that basis, it’s hard to imagine the residents of Washington getting all enthused about the HSUS ballot initiative.
Nor HSUS having to spend multi-millions to promote a measure that could deal them a stinging defeat.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator