Standards for Hens Worry Other Livestock Groups

Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:07pm

Livestock groups, alarmed by the prospect that the Senate farm bill may include national standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens, are trying to pressure Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow to abandon the idea.

The organizations promise a floor fight if they cannot persuade the Michigan Democrat to withdraw the language or have committee members strip it from the bill at an expected markup this month. The National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent alerts to members this week to call their congressional delegations, especially if their lawmakers sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Scott George, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said his organization would work to defeat the entire farm bill if it goes to the floor with language codifying an agreement United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States signed in 2011.

“That’s how strongly we feel about it,” George said.

Livestock groups may not have the political muscle to sink the bill by themselves, but they were joined last year by the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union and National Milk Producers Federation in successfully opposing codification of the agreement.

The agreement language would apply only to egg producers and would amend current federal law on egg production to require farmers to complete the transition to larger cages for housing hens by 2029. The agreement also requires product labels for consumers indicating production conditions and calls for hen house air quality and ammonia standards; a ban on sales of shell eggs and egg products from operations that do not meet new cage standards; and sets euthanasia standards for egg-laying hens.

“We don’t think that government officials are the best people to start prescribing how we care and house our animals,” George said. “The people in the production practices are the experts. I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

Reaching Beyond Hens

Other livestock and farm groups say that if the agreement becomes law, an emboldened Humane Society and other animal welfare groups might pursue federal legislation to regulate their operations. Many in animal agriculture view animal welfare groups — the well-funded and aggressive Humane Society in particular — as activists or extremists determined to end the food animal industry.

“They think animal abuse is eating a pork chop at night,” said Chris Wall, assistant vice president for government affairs for the National Pork Producers Council.

Wall said the livestock industry’s suspicions about creeping federal regulation of on-farm and ranch animal practices is not far-fetched. He noted that animal welfare groups have pushed commercial buyers such as McDonald’s USA to require farmers and other suppliers to end the use of gestation stalls for housing pregnant sows if they want to sell to the company. McDonald’s executives said that by 2022 it will not buy pork from suppliers still using the stalls.

“Everything they do in the private sector is geared to passing a federal law. The reason this (egg agreement) affects us is that HSUS sees this as their blueprint. Businesses change their minds (about standards). Consumers change their minds. It is more difficult to change federal law,” Wall said.

Earlier this week, Stabenow told representatives of the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau she planned to include the UEP-Humane Society agreement in her chairman’s mark.

“Egg producers are struggling with a patchwork of regulations that vary from state to state, and having one uniform national standard is critically important to them,” Stabenow spokesman Cullen Schwarz said in an email.

Egg producers in Michigan, a top 10 egg-producing state, support putting the national agreement in federal law which, if approved, would pre-empt more stringent requirements voters approved in a ballot initiative. The agreement also would supersede similar state laws on laying hens in Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

The legislation would allow California to proceed with requirements that state egg producers use larger cages by 2015. However, the state could not impose similar requirements for production on out-of-state egg farmers or keep them from selling into the California. Federal legislation would pre-empt California law in that area.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., introduced bills (S 820, HR 1731) to codify the United Egg Producers-Humane Society agreement. Stabenow is a co-sponsor of the Feinstein bill.

Schrader, a former veterinarian who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, introduced similar legislation last year. He found few allies on the committee when the panel wrote its farm bill. Instead, the committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would have prevented states such as California from requiring out-of-state agricultural goods to meet their agricultural production and manufacturing laws in order to be sold in their jurisdictions. Iowa is the nation’s top egg and pork producing state.

Each party in the agreement has dissenters in their ranks. Some egg farmers believe the agreement goes too far and is too expensive, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Farming Association have said it does not go far enough to improve conditions for hens.

Despite the dissent, Joe Miller, a United Egg Producer member and general counsel for Rose Acre Farms, which is among the nation’s largest egg operations, said putting the agreement into statute would provide his industry with uniform standards and end state-level ballot initiatives that set different requirements. It also would end costly battles with the Humane Society.

“We cannot beat them in the legislation on a state-by-state basis. They are killing us,” Miller said at a meeting of the Animal Agriculture Alliance on May 1. He also said the differing state efforts violate the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause by erecting barriers to egg sales.

“All the federal legislation is doing is validating the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. Let’s get something that we know that we can operate under the next 20 years with some certainty,” Miller said.