Cage Match

As goes California, so goes the rest of the country in chicken-welfare regulations


When news broke on July 7 that United Egg Producers had struck a deal with its longtime nemesis, the Humane Society of the United States, a lot of people had to check and make sure they weren’t reading the Onion by mistake. The surprise announcement drew gasps of “stunning,” “historic,”

“a landmark” from observers in the food and agriculture community, as the often bitter antagonists appear to have buried the hatchet, at least temporarily, and not up each other’s bottoms. Gary Truitt, in Hoosier Ag Today, wrote, “‘Unprecedented’ does not do the situation justice.”

The former adversaries will jointly seek federal legislation based on their multipoint agreement to increase animal welfare standards on egg farms. The industry-standard cage currently used by more than 90 percent of producers will be phased out. Replacements will be equipped with perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas so the animals can attempt to act and feel like chickens, and the space allotted per chicken will nearly double. Practices like starvation-induced molting to extend the laying cycle will be ended, and limits will be placed on ammonia levels in henhouses. The agreement also calls for labeling mandates, which if enacted could be its most enduring legacy.

The National Pork Producers Council unleashed a scathing response to the agreement, saying that if enacted it will “take away producers’ freedom to operate in a way that’s best for their animals, make it difficult to respond to consumer demands, raise retail meat prices and take away consumer choice.”

It’s ironic that the pork industry would claim the egg agreement threatens consumer choice; after all, it only came about because consumers did choose, decisively—or at least voters did. Arizona, Michigan and Ohio, along with California, have already passed ballot initiatives for reforms similar to those called for by the new national agreement, and similar efforts are currently underway in Oregon and Washington. (In 2008, more Californians voted for Proposition 2 than for any other initiative in state history.)

United Egg Producers choose to bargain at the federal level rather than face state-by-state rejection of the practices it currently endorses. And while some are calling the agreed-upon reforms of these practices a decisive victory for animal rights, the industry may see it as a strategic retreat that secures a pretty good deal in the long run.

The proposed reforms would roll out at a seemingly glacial pace, especially in chicken years. As written, it will take 18 years from the date of enactment for the improvements to be fully phased in.

This probably isn’t the paradigm shift that most animal-rights activists, in their heart of hearts, really want. By signing off on improvements to the industry’s worst practices, the Humane Society may be forfeiting the opportunity to make future enhancements to the quality of life of the nation’s almost 300 million egg-layers, and by discussing cage size, it is implicitly acknowledging that the answer to the underlying question “Should cages be allowed?” is “Yes.”

I asked Josh Balk, a spokesman at the Humane Society, if he thought this deal would limit the potential to enact future improvements. “It hasn’t limited the upside in other parts of the world where similar laws have passed, like the EU, where there’s a thriving cage-free market, even though the new EU laws don’t require cage-free housing systems,” he said. “More than half the eggs in the U.K. are from cage-free hens.”

If enacted as law, the agreement’s labeling mandates would add valuable clarity and accountability where it’s sorely needed. Egg cartons have always been a lawless landscape where anything can be claimed, few rules are enforced and the rare labels with any legal meaning are usually irrelevant anyway.

“Natural,” for example, says absolutely nothing about how something was produced but refers only to the absence of additives in processing; in the case of eggs, “natural” simply means “only eggs.” Meanwhile, claims that eggs are “hormone-free” are about as meaningful as calling them “carbon-based.” No hormones are approved for use on chickens, meaning every legally sold egg is hormone-free.

The Humane Society and United Egg Producers propose that cartons bear labels identifying “caged,” “enhanced cages,” “cage-free” or “free-range” layers. The “caged” option will be phased out, along with the practice, over the course of the 18-year transition. If enacted, these labels would be the first instance of federally mandated disclosure of farming practices, raising the chicken’s welfare to the status shared by the product’s ingredients as information you have a right to know.

Sonoma County Library