August 2, 2012
Also contributing to this post is Sarita Wahba, MS, research assistant at the Center.
Sarita: David, thank you for inviting me to join you on a CLF field trip to Washington D.C. last week. I really enjoyed being present at the Senate hearing on the newly proposed amendments to the Egg Products and Inspection Act. It was interesting to learn about this bill that would upgrade the national living standard for egg-laying hens to “enriched colony housing.” Essentially, that means doubling cage size per hen, and adding perches and scratching posts so hens can engage in natural behaviors. Apparently, the amendments would also require more comprehensive labeling of egg cartons, which would clarify hen housing standards for consumers.
David: Of course. I’m glad we had the chance to witness firsthand the legislative process in action. It was interesting to see who was on each side of the argument. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–California) brought forth this legislation with the support of both the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP). On the other side was Senator Pat Roberts (R–Kansas) with support from a board member of the UEP who disagreed with the position UEP was taking on the bill. I thought it was particularly intriguing that the discussion in the hearing, while under the guise of improving animal welfare standards, focused primarily on the complex economics of egg production.
Sarita: Right, the conversation mainly surrounded egg sales, egg production costs, and how the current patchwork of state laws that guide egg production affects interstate commerce.
David: Yeah, the industry experts who support the legislation cited the logistical and economic constraints of having to produce eggs that meet the standards of each state. “Patchwork” certainly seemed to be the buzzword for the United Egg Producers and co.
Sarita: And the one industry representative on the expert panel who opposed the bill argued that the cost of equipment would be too high and would likely force many small farmers into debt or out of business. He underscored his point by stating that this actually occurred in Europe when the EU transitioned to enriched colony housing, causing a 20 percent decrease in egg production and a spike in prices.
David: The bill’s proponents honed in on the equipment transition cost, as there is a 15-18 year phase-in period for the enriched colony housing. They testified that during this time period most egg producers would need to replace their equipment anyway—thereby not incurring additional costs. The United Egg Producers even commissioned a study by Agralytica, which concluded that there would be very minimal increases in price for producers.
Sarita: Yet, the bill’s opponent said that the life of cages was actually 30 years and that having to replace them earlier would be unreasonably expensive. Seems like each side had their own set of statistics that they were subscribing to.
David: True. One aspect to the hearing that was conspicuously missing was that there was very little discussion of the public health aspect to egg production. When briefly mentioned though, both sides of the argument seemed to agree that food safety risks related to egg consumption were already extremely low and that the shift to enriched colony cages would not improve upon safety levels.
Brent: One of the main food safety concerns regarding egg production is contamination with Salmonella, but the science is not consistent as to whether a switch to enriched colony cages would lower the prevalence of Salmonella in hens and their eggs. In terms of public health benefits, there seems to be more agreement around two other measures introduced in the amendment: a ban on forced molting, and a cap on allowable ammonia emissions. I offer more details in my post.
Sarita: Thanks for weighing in with your expertise, Brent. So, there you have it, an improvement for public health regarding molting and emissions, an emphasis on the economic benefits for egg producers, and a continued debate over the pros and cons for animal welfare.
David: Stay tuned for updates on the progress of the bill in congress and other measures for the improvement of animal welfare.