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Thursday March 22, 2018

Caged eggs were once a good thing

When egg farmers first moved into caged housing in the '50s and '60s, it was such a benefit to the system that some companies actually promoted the fact they caged their hens. Today, the designation has become a black mark on the U.S. system which animal-rights activists hope to eliminate. One suggested solution: Force egg farmers to return to labeling eggs as from caged hens.


Breaking News: It's back. Legislation that will mandate almost all eggs bear the label “from caged hens” coming back to Congress

Caged eggs labelFederal laying-hen legislation brokered by the country's egg-producer association and the animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States will be re-introduced in Congress by Oregan Congressman Kurt Schrader within the next 30 days, sources report. Although the final language of the legislation hasn't been made public yet, it's expected that labeling provisions will remain the same as a nearly identical bill by Schrader that stalled in the last Congress. That bill would have mandated that eggs be labeled to describe the type of housing the hens were raised in within as soon as a year after passage of the bill.

Those amendments to the federal Egg Products Inspection Act, a highly publicized compromise between the HSUS, a $160 million per year Washington animal-rights group, and the Georgia-based United Egg Producers, calls for the mandatory egg labeling during the 18-year period American egg farmers would be granted to move away from traditional "battery cage" hen housing. The bill calls for eventual replacement of the conventional cages used in more than 90 percent of egg production. It will mandate instead confinement that permits hens roughly double the current voluntary standard space, along with perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas that allow hens to express natural behaviors. It would also set out certain care standards ranging from ammonia levels in barns to how to put non-viable birds out of their misery, and would prohibit anyone from selling eggs that don’t meet the standards. Estimates have predicted the legislation would require anywhere from $4 billion to $10 billion in industry investment. Egg producers will have up to 18 years to transition to the new systems once legislation passes.

But virtually unnoticed in debates over last year's bill is a requirement that all eggs sold at retail in the United States must be labeled with specific information on the housing system under which those eggs were produced. If history is any indication, the label terms will cause a new wave of consumer concerns, as the labels pull back the cover on previously unexamined aspects of how eggs are grown and hens are cared for. Beginning just one year after enactment of the amendments, anyone buying, selling or transporting eggs in packages not containing “adequate housing-related labeling” would be in violation of the law. The legislation carefully defines “adequate,” and a careful reading of the language of the legislation shows that until the Secretar of Agriculture specifies exactly what is meant by the term "enriched housing," it will be impossible to label eggs in any manner other than free-range, cage-free, or “eggs from caged hens.” Because free-range and cage-free represent only a fraction of U.S. eggs marketed, the practical consequence of the legislation will be that the majority of eggs in your dairy case will be stamped with less-than-favorable “eggs from caged hens”—likely for years.

Does that mandate have potential to turn consumers away from the majority of eggs? The United Egg Producers doesn't believe so. "We have always been committed to consumer choice and having farmers provide whatever type of eggs consumers want to buy," said spokesman Chad Gregory, President of UEP. "Typically, eggs that come from conventional cages are half-price of cage-free or free-range eggs, according to USDA statistics. So consumers will still have the choice, depending on their personal preference and ability to pay."

In an effort to stave off criticism the compromise legislation took from other farm commodity groups last year, Schrader will also insert language into the new bill that makes explicit that the housing requirements in the legislation only apply to commercial egg production and will not apply to the production of pork, beef, turkey, dairy, broiler chicken, veal, or other livestock or poultry.

That provision is not likely to satisfy either the National Pork Producers or the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, both of which publicly critized last year's proposed legislation.

"NPPC does not oppose what the bill does – increase the size of laying-hen cages," the group's spokesman told Farmer Goes to Market. "It opposes the fact that it would allow the federal government to dictate on-farm production practices. It codifies that power in federal legislation."

NCBA agrees. "Legislation like the HSUS/UEP proposal represents unprecedented government oversight of production practices, and cattlemen and women rightfully oppose it in any form."

We will follow up and bring you details of the labeling requirements as they become available. In the meantime, use the comment window below to leave a comment or question.

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