The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the Unites States introduced a new federal bill, The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (HR 3798), that, if passed, will establish a national cage size standard for egg-laying hens.
HR 3798 is a bi-partisan bill introduced by several representatives including Jeff Denham (R). The bill will require egg producers to double the space allotted per hen and make other important hen-welfare improvements during a tiered phase-in period that would give farmers time to make the investments in better housing.
In 2008 California voters passed Proposition 2 to increase cage sizes and living conditions for hens in egg-laying production facilities.
In March 2011, JS West, a Stanislaus County-based egg farming company, was joined by the Association of California Egg Farmers in a lawsuit against the State of California and the Humane Society of the United States. The purpose of the lawsuit was to clarify the exact requirements for egg-laying hen housing systems, which was not specified in Prop 2.
The HSUS had been calling for cage-free egg laying facilities and egg producers like JS West concluded that "enriched colonies" with cages of about 116 square inches, or 4 by 12 feet for up to 60 hens was sufficient. The enriched colonies include nesting boxes, emery board for scratching claws, perches, fresh feed and water. Hens are also assigned a human caregiver who provides proper medical care when needed.
By late June a nationwide memorandum of understanding had been established between the UEP and the Humane Society on the enriched colony standard, which has led to the announcement of the national standards bill - HR 3798.
JS West Vice President Jill Benson applauded the bill.
"California Egg Farmers are in support and favor this bill. It provides clarity for egg producers and it secures our future at JS West. We really need national standards because eggs need to cross states lines and consumers demand fresh, quality eggs," she said.
According to the UEP, egg farmers see a federal standard as the only solution that both enhances hen welfare and ensures a sustainable future for America's family-owned egg farms, which represents egg farmers who produce 88 percent of the nation's eggs.
"Eggs are a national commodity, and egg producers should have a level playing field - not have different, costly rules in all 50 states," said Gene Gregory, president and CEO of United Egg Producers. "That's where we are heading if we don't pass this federal legislation. We need this legislation for our customers and consumers and the survival of egg farmers."
H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, would:
• Require conventional cages to be replaced during an ample phase-in period with new, enriched colony housing systems that provide all egg-laying hens nearly double the amount of current space;
• Require that, after a phase-in period, all egg-laying hens be provided with environmental enrichments, such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas, that will allow hens to express natural behaviors;
• Require labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs-"eggs from caged hens," "eggs from hens in enriched cages," "eggs from cage-free hens" and "eggs from free-range hens";
• Prohibit feed- or water-withdrawal molting to extend the laying cycle, a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program;
• Require standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia of egg-laying hens;
• Prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses; and
• Prohibit the transport and sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don't meet these requirements.
If enacted, the proposal would require egg producers to increase space per hen in a tiered phase-in, with the amount of space hens are given increasing, in intervals, over the next 15 to 18 years. Phase-in schedules are more rapid in California, consistent with a ballot initiative approved earlier by voters in 2008. California egg farmers must comply with Prop 2 standards by 2015. Currently, the majority of hens are each provided 67 square inches of space, with up to 50 million receiving just 48 square inches. The proposed phase-in would culminate with a minimum of 124 square inches of space for white hens and 144 for brown hens nationwide.
Farmers have begun to invest in enriched colony cage housing systems in hopes that this legislation will pass and provide clarity for what is acceptable hen housing in all states in the future.
In 2010 JS West built a new hen housing facility for 150,000 hens at a cost of $3.6 million. According to Benson, the 2015 deadline will cost California egg farmers about $550 million and will directly lead to a price increase in eggs at the supermarket.
"We aren't happy with it but HSUS just had to hold onto that win," said Benson. "We estimate it will lead to about a penny an egg increase."
To view live video of the enriched colony at the JS West egg production facility visit www.jswest.com and clock on the Hens Live icon in the red-striped banner.
To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.