U.S. egg producers and animal welfare groups announced a sweeping compromise yesterday on how much cage space to provide for egg-laying chickens.The agreement calls for roughly doubling the industry standard of 67 square inches of floor space per bird.

Both the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States, the activist group responsible for numerous state referenda outlawing gestation stalls and battery cages, agreed to ask Congress to pass legislation that would codify the new standards.

Both groups said the agreement could put an end the often-bitter debate over the amount of space hens are provided in typical egg-laying operations.As part of the compromise, HSUS is planning to halt planned initiatives for Oregon and Washington state that would have asked voters to ban cages in egg production.California egg producers would have to comply by 2021, after meeting interim standards by 2015. Producers in other states could install the new cages over the next 18 years.

Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO, was quick to take credit for the “victory.”

“This is a major, major investment by the industry to improve welfare,” he said at a Washington, D.C. news conference yesterday.

Bob Krouse, an Indiana egg farmer and UEP chairman, called the deal “an unprecedented agreement to work together toward the enactment of comprehensive new federal legislation for all 280 million hens involved in U.S. egg production.”

He said that the egg industry expects to invest about $4 billion over the 15 years to effect the changes. The proposed standards, if enacted, would be the first federal standards addressing animal welfare on farms.

The minimum floor space under the proposed national standards would be 124 square inches for hens that lay white eggs and 144 for the larger hens that lay brown eggs.The new “enriched” cages would have separate areas where hens could nest, perch and indulge in their habit of bathing in dust.

According to UEP, the proposed legislation would require that:

  • Conventional cages be replaced with enriched housing systems that provide nearly double the amount of space per hen currently allotted
  • Egg-laying hens be provided with environments that will allow hens to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas
  • Labeling be mandated on egg cartons to inform consumers of production methods, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free-range hens”
  • Feed- or water-withholding molting to extend the laying cycle be prohibited
  • Standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia be adopted
  • Excessive ammonia levels in henhouses be prevented

A workable deal

In California, where egg producers face the imposition of Prop 2 standards, which require that by 2015 egg-layer cages must provide enough room for hens to stand up, turn around and flap their wings freely, the chairman of at least one major egg company, Modesto-based J.S. West & Cos., said that compromise was workable.

“We’ve been trying to negotiate with them for a long time,”Gary West, who also serves on UEP’s board of directors, told the Modesto Bee.

J.S. West was the first producer to install cages aimed at complying with Prop 2. This company’s newer barns, which house about 8% of theirtotal flock, provide about 116 square inches of floor space per hen, West said.

Of course, HSUS is fully capable of playing it both ways on the issue of animal welfare. At the same time their leadership was traveling the country last year lamenting the “factory farming” responsible for mass-producing food products at prices that millions of ordinary working people can actually afford, HSUS accused the nation’s egg producersof violating antitrust laws in a national price-fixing scheme to drive up the price of eggs in 2007.

Following its so-called investigation, HSUS petitioned the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the United Egg Producers created its widely recognized animal welfare programmerely as a dodge to conceal a price-fixing scheme. Shortly thereafter, a number of large egg buyers filed class-action lawsuits against UEP and its members alleging violations of federal antitrust laws. The defendants includedsome of the country’s largest egg producers, including Rose Acre Farms, Cal-Maine, Ohio Fresh Eggs, Michael Foods, Land O’Lakes, NuCal and Moark.

Oh, those staunch defenders of free enterprise, those righteously motivated guardians of unfettered capitalism. We should be thanking HSUS for fighting alongside of the poor, oppressed multi-billion dollar supermarket operators and fast-food purveyors to preserve their right to cheap, abundant egg products. Why, it’s downright un-American to think that our favorite burger chain or grocery store might have to paying higher prices for eggs. God bless those capitalist watchdogs at HSUS! What would we do without them?

If these new standards are actually written into law, the animal production industries can certainly hope that they might find out.

Just don’t bet on it.

Dan Murphy is as veteran food-industry journalist and commentator