Egg producers, Humane Society reach chicken pact
EGG-LAYING HENS, like the million that Sonoman Arnie Riebli owns, will have more cage room if new federal legislation is passed.
After three years of tense negotiations, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States finally found common ground, at least on the issue of increasing confinement standards of egg-laying hens.
Sonoma resident Arnie Riebli, who owns one million egg-laying hens through his business Sunrise Farms, has serious concerns about how these standards will be implemented in California.
The discussion began in 2008 when California voters passed Proposition 2, the Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which mandated that all caged hens have enough room to "spread their wings," among other requirements, by 2015. While voters overwhelming approved the measure, egg producers took immediate exception with the vagueness of the wording, saying it did not provide a clear definition of cage dimensions. For the next three years, egg producers and the Humane Society tried to come to an agreement on space standards.
Last Thursday, representatives from UEP and HSUS held a joint press conference to announce that they had reached common ground and would work together to pass federal legislation that would increase the size of egg-laying hen cages from between 48- and 60-square-inches to 124-square-inches by 2029. The law would also require hens be able to engage in their natural behaviors of scratching and nesting, phase out a practice of starving chickens to manipulate laying patterns, limit the ammonia levels in henhouses and require ethical euthanasia standards. It would require that all eggs sold in the country meet those confinement standards, and would mandate better labels for eggs so consumers know what type of caging system is utilized.
"This historic agreement calls for a series of reforms to be put into place in the years ahead that will demonstrably improve the lives of laying hens," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, in a press release statement.
Riebli said he has no problem with the standards, in fact he suggested many of them during early negations with the Humane Society. "This is exactly what I proposed four years ago," Riebli said. "I would support this agreement if California received the same treatment as the rest of the country."
But because California passed Proposition 2, California producers will be required to implement these new standards much earlier than any other state. In the agreement, in-state egg producers would have to increase cage space to 116-square-inches by 2015, and 124-square-inches by 2029.
Riebli said this puts unfair financial burden on California farmers, especially since farmers were not able to begin retrofitting their facilities during the past three years because negotiations were ongoing and the cage standards had not been defined.
"The timeframe is really short," he said, adding he'll have little time to prepare for the retrofit. "This is a very, very, very significant cost. We're probably looking at, I'm going to guess, $10 million, maybe more."
The Humane Society disagreed, saying the legislation passed in 2008 and farmers should have been preparing for the coming change. The Humane Society's Chief Counsel Jonathan Lovvorn pointed out that this was a change the voters approved.
"Californians want better treatment for egg-laying hens ... it's a reality, and I don't think we or the egg producers have any business changing that," he said, adding there is also a law requiring that all eggs sold in California meet those standards, so local producers are not at a greater disadvantage than any other producer who wants to sell in state.
"By the end of the day, everyone is going to be at the same standards, California is just going to get there sooner," Lovvorn added.
There are various types of hen confinement, including: free range, where chickens can freely access the outdoors; cage-free, where birds are confined inside barns but not cages; or, most commonly, caged hens. Since Proposition 2 passed, Riebli said he's increased the amount of cage-free eggs he produces in an early attempt to meet the requirements of the new law. But he said cage-free eggs cost more to produce, and the money is not returned in sales.
"The consumer doesn't buy what the voters voted for. They buy by price," he said, adding that the more expensive cage-free eggs do not sell as well as the cheaper caged eggs.
Riebli said he and other egg producers will have to decide if it's worth the investment to retrofit, which would include buying new property to meet the expanded space requirements, adding that "we're crunching numbers now." But he said the move will undoubtedly hit small farmers the hardest, many of whom he said could be driven out of business, potentially creating an egg shortage in California. "It's going to be like a soap opera for the next little bit," he said. "Every day is going to be a challenge."