Baer and Spronk: Playing Chicken With American Consumers

Posted July 10, 2012 at 2:53pm

The House may soon engage in a dangerous game of chicken with the nation’s food supply — and with American consumers.

When it takes up the 2012 farm bill, the House may consider an amendment imposing new requirements on hen housing at egg farms nationwide. Among the changes is a near doubling in the size of cages for laying hens.

The proposal, by Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, would set a dangerous precedent for allowing the government to dictate how farm animals are raised in this country.

At stake are the livelihoods of thousands of family farmers and the food budgets of consumers from coast to coast. The amendment will increase food prices, decrease food choices and cause niche-market products to simply disappear.

These are not scare tactics. They’re economic reality. When farm animals get more space, one of two things happens: Farmers either create more housing or they raise fewer animals. Either way, costs go up — costs that ultimately will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher food prices and fewer food choices.

Europe already has gone this route, with disastrous results. A ban this year on conventional hen cages triggered a 10 percent to 15 percent cut in egg production in the European Union, as many producers gave up farming rather than comply with the new rules. In Spain, farm-gate egg prices increased 72 percent in the first two months of 2012. In the Czech Republic, the price of eggs more than doubled before Easter.

Schrader’s legislation would codify an agreement reached last year between an association of egg producers and the Humane Society of the United States. In return for a pledge from the animal-rights group not to seek state ballot initiatives mandating hen-cage sizes and to stop lawsuits and undercover investigations of the egg industry, the United Egg Producers agreed to increase cages from 67 square inches to 124 square inches over time and to adopt new air-quality standards for henhouses and egg-labeling requirements.

But if egg producers agreed to these changes, why take the extra step of codifying the deal in federal law through the Schrader amendment? Because California — a large egg-producing state — and four other states have hen-housing laws, the United Egg Producers want one uniform national standard rather than a patchwork.

But bad state laws don’t justify an unnecessary, costly and dangerous federal intrusion into day-to-day farm operations that will hurt consumers and farmers alike. Schrader’s legislation will increase pressure for similar federal standards for other livestock sectors, and nothing in the amendment prevents the Humane Society from mounting follow-up campaigns against cattle, sheep or pork producers. In fact, nothing in the amendment prevents the Humane Society from, at some point, “compelling” United Egg Producers to move to cage-free operations. (At a press conference announcing the egg agreement, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said cage-free laying hens was still his organization’s goal.)

Treating livestock humanely doesn’t require an act of Congress. Farmers know best how to care for their animals. The Schrader amendment should be rejected.

Amon Baer is a member of Egg Farmers of America. Randy Spronk is president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council. Both serve as spokesmen for the Keep Food Affordable coalition.