WASHINGTON — The freedom of a hen to flap its wings and move around became an issue of congressional concern Thursday as a Senate committee discussed legislation to set national standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens.
The debate over how much space hens should have in their coops has drawn the attention of other livestock producers who fear that they’ll be the next target of animal welfare advocates, and has become a states’ rights issue as some states try to impose their tougher standards on eggs coming from other states.
“This is a practical, fair-minded deal that solves a real problem for the egg industry,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. She was promoting her legislation that would increase the size of henhouses and require egg labeling so consumers will know how the hens were raised.
Her effort to create national standards is in part the result of an initiative passed by Californians in 2008 that required that hens be able to stretch their wings and turn around. At least five other states have enacted similar rules, creating a patchwork of standards that has complicated operations for egg producers.
Greg Herbruck, a poultry farmer from Michigan, told the packed hearing room that his farm sells eggs in 30 states and that with individual state standards “we could have to have a chicken house for every state.”
The legislation was also patterned after a compromise reached last year between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers, whose members produce 90 percent of all eggs sold in the United States.
David Lathem, chairman of United Egg Producers and a Georgia poultry farmer, said the deal would allow his industry to plan for the future where “the American public is interested as never before in where food comes from.”
He denied that there would be a “slippery slope” where animal welfare groups, if successful in changing how hens are raised, next go after other livestock industries.
Groups representing beef and pork industries have come out against Feinstein’s bill, and a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., arguing that they might be the next target of federal legislation. Lathem said poultry farmers, unlike other animal producers, are willingly seeking uniform standards.
But Amon Baer, a former United Egg Producer board member who is now part of a small group, Egg Farmers of America, that opposes the legislation, warned that it could drive small farmers out of business, increase consumer prices, affect other industries and lacked scientific justification.
The issue also split the committee head, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the bill, and the top Republican, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who spoke of the “unintended consequences” of possibly lower productivity, enforcement difficulties and higher prices. He said the European Union saw a drop in supply of 10 percent to 15 percent and a 55 percent increase in egg prices after implementing a similar law.
Supporters said the price jumps seen in Europe would be avoided because the Feinstein bill gives farmers 18 years to increase the size of hen cages. The measure would also outlaw the practice of depriving hens of food and water to increase egg production, set minimum air quality standards for hen houses and require that egg cartons stipulate whether eggs come from hens that are caged, cage-free, free-range or housed in enriched cages.
The growing national trend of knowing where your food comes from and how chickens are treated has reached Gillette, too.
On August 6, the Gillette City Council will consider the final reading of its animal ordinance, at which point it may also consider adding an amendment to the ordinance that would allow people to raise hens inside city limits.
The chicken discussion has raised reactions on both sides of the aisle. Some think that chickens belong in the county and don’t want them next door. Others want to have the option of raising hens to be more sustainable and so that they can know where their eggs are coming from.