The agreement on housing for laying hens between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and United Egg Producers is receiving a mixed reaction from egg producers in California.
The agreement, announced last week between HSUS and the cooperative representing 80 percent of U.S. egg production, includes a call for Congress to adopt national standards for egg-producing facilities that would in the next 15 to 18 years phase in larger units known as enriched colony systems that would also provide perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas. These systems would replace the smaller enclosures now in use on most egg-producing operations in the United States.
Once fully implemented at the national level, actual floor space for each bird would increase from the current standard of 67 square inches to 124 square inches for chickens that lay white eggs, and 144 square inches for the larger birds that lay brown eggs.
California producers say they're unhappy that under the agreement, egg producers here would still have to comply with a 2015 deadline adopted through the passage of Proposition 2 in 2008, rather than a much later deadline being proposed for egg producers in the other 49 states. Proposition 2 stated that enclosures in use in California by 2015 must provide each bird with enough room to stand up, turn around and flap its wings freely.
Egg producers in California have repeatedly asked how they could be expected to comply with a standard that is so subjective in interpretation.
"While we are still in the process of reviewing the agreement between HSUS and the United Egg Producers, we welcome the recognition by HSUS that the enriched colony system is a suitable hen habitat. California's egg farmers have long advocated the use of an enriched colony system as a superior living area for hens," said Arnie Riebli, president of the Association of California Egg Producers, which represents 70 percent of the state's egg farmers. "At the same time, we are very disappointed that California egg farmers are not being treated equally as the other 49 states."
Federal legislation needed
Under the agreement between UEP and HSUS, the two groups will jointly ask Congress for federal legislation that would require egg farmers to increase space per bird in a tiered phase-in, with the amount of space birds are given increasing, in intervals, during the next 15 to 18 years.
If passed by Congress, the legislation would supersede state laws including those that have been passed in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio. But, because of the passage of Proposition 2 in California, UEP and HSUS said they will ask Congress to require California egg farmers to replace conventional housing with enriched colony systems by 2015. Under the proposed federal legislation, these requirements would also apply to the sale of out-of-state eggs and egg products in California.
Existing hen housing in all states except California would have 15 to 18 years to be taken out of service or enriched to the larger sizes specified in the proposal. Percentage targets have been proposed by which the U.S. Department of Agriculture would survey the poultry sector on or before Dececember 31, 2018, to determine whether farmers are making progress in converting their oldest housing.
One observer of the California poultry business noted that the proposal would put California egg farmers at a decided disadvantage with their counterparts nationally. For example, an egg farm in another state could convert a portion of its operation to the larger systems by 2015 to continue shipping to California, while continuing to produce eggs for several more years in its current facilities with smaller units, before being required to meet the same standard for its entire operation required in California by 2015.
Clear pathway to transition
Last year, egg producer JS West spent $3 million to upgrade one of its housing units with an enriched colony system. JS West Vice President Jill Benson called the UEP/HSUS agreement a compromise that her company can accept, because it outlines a clear pathway for hen housing to transition.
"While California egg farmers remain bound by Proposition 2's 2015 deadline, it (the agreement) provides the clarity we need in order to begin building new barns to ensure a consistent, local, fresh egg supply to California consumers," she said. "Ultimately, the agreement ensures that US egg farmers are all under the same requirements with a consistent set of standards, thereby providing consumers with clear understanding of how their eggs are produced."
JS West President Eric Benson said he hoped HSUS and egg farmers "can continue to work together to get this agreement into law soon enough for us to proceed and be successful as an industry by 2015."
In their joint announcement, HSUS and UEP said they agreed not to initiate, fund or support any state legislation or ballot initiative measures concerning space requirements for housing of laying hens. HSUS and UEP also agreed not to "initiate, fund or support litigation against, or investigation of, either party or UEP members while this agreement is in force."
UEP said complete details of the agreement to transition to enriched colony cages would be provided at informational meetings to be conducted in six locations across the country in August.
United Egg Producers
Humane Society of the United States
California Farm Bureau Federation