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Egg laying hen welfare proposal prompts diverse criticism

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 26-Jan-2012

Proposed legislation to formalize an agreement over welfare conditions for egg laying hens been criticized by farmers for involving the politics of animal welfare, and an animal welfare organization for endorsing “abusive confinement systems”.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), aims to codify an agreement reached by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and United Egg Producers (UEP) last July, to establish a standard minimum size for cages and enriched housing for egg laying hens throughout the United States. The UEP says it represents farms that own 95% of the nation’s egg laying hens.

Schrader, and the bill’s bipartisan co-sponsors, said that formalizing the agreement would help bring order to the industry as it faces a spate of state-specific regulations and guidelines.

However, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has claimed that any new requirements should be driven by vets and animal scientists, rather than animal rights groups, and if passed, it would set a “dangerous precedent”.

AFBF president Bob Stallman said: “We see this legislation as an attempt by a radical animal rights group to legitimize a policy package that will undoubtedly be used to bully other livestock producers.

“We firmly believe that any approach to animal care that does not rely on the expertise of veterinarians and animal scientists collaborating with farmers, ranchers and other livestock producers – in short, the people who work with farm animals daily – is simply not justified.”

The HSUS and UEP told FoodNavigator-USA in a joint statement that the legislation deals only with egg laying hens and would not impact others in animal agriculture.

“It amends the Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970, a federal statute that already regulates the sale of eggs and does not reach into other agricultural products,” they said. “This is a matter of self-determination for the egg industry. If this legislation is blocked by other livestock organizations unfamiliar with the science or economics of egg production, egg farmers face the very real prospect of going out of business.”

They added: “Leading scientists familiar with the egg industry embrace the legislation and urge a transition to enriched colony cages…UEP’s scientific advisory committee, comprising experts from Purdue University, the American Veterinary Medical Association and other prestigious institutions, has reviewed enriched cages and has noted that they combine the advantages of both conventional cages and cage-free systems.”

The Humane Farming Association has also protested the bill.

“UEP claims that this legislation would eventually result in ‘progress’ for laying hens,” said Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association. “Just the opposite is true. In reality, the egg industry merely agreed to slowly continue the meager changes in battery cage conditions that are already occurring due to state laws and public pressure.

“…If it passes, it will establish egg factory cages as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote, and would keep laying hens forever locked in cages.”

The association added: “There is no such thing as an “enriched” battery cage. No humane organization should ever endorse these abusive confinement systems.”

The UEP and HSUS responded: “Scientific research shows that increasing the amount of space per hen and providing the hens with environmental enrichments (e.g., nesting boxes, perches, and scratching areas) improves their welfare, which is advantageous for hens and producers alike.”

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