Article by Erik Smith. Published on Friday, July 08, 2011 EST.
Costly Campaigns in Washington and Oregon are Averted When Egg Farmers Shake Hands With Humane Society – Signatures Were to Have Been Turned in Today in Olympia
By Erik Smith
Staff writer/ Washington State Wire
OLYMPIA, July 8.—Just one day before a costly initiative campaign would have been launched in this state, egg farmers shook hands with the Humane Society in Washington, D.C. and agreed to new standards nationwide for egg-laying hens.
As far as activists were concerned, you might say a half-a-million bucks spent in this state turned the tide for animal rights in the other Washington. For the last two months they have been paying canvassers in Washington state to gather signatures for Initiative 1130, which would have made this state the second to send an such a measure to the ballot. They say they collected 355,000 of them, more than enough to assure the measure would go before voters in November. And if Washington voters voted yes, as they have on two previous animal-rights measures, this state would have imposed the strictest standards in the country.
It came down to the wire. At 3 o’clock today, the final day for turning in signatures to the state, the activists were planning to back their truck up to the loading dock at the state elections office and begin carrying boxes of signed petitions inside. But it appears the deadline in this Washington set a deadline 3,000 miles away.
Thursday morning in the national capital, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers, which represents 85 percent of the egg industry by volume, announced a deal that will set new standards for the caged birds that produce the bulk of the nation’s eggs. The hens will get more space in their cages and a chance to stretch their legs every now and then. The groups will ask Congress to pass a bill that will impose the rules nationwide, tough it is far from a done deal – other ag groups are appalled, and are fearful they will be the next target.
And while the activists and the egg producers are both proclaiming victory and declining every opportunity to squawk, elections records on file at the Washington Public Disclosure Commission give a sense of the eye-pecking and chicken scratching that was about to take place in this state. The chicken ranchers had raised nearly a half-million dollars themselves, and they had picked a name for their committee that offered a clue about what they really thought. They called it “Stop the Extremists.”
Sure Beats Initiatives
The deal cancels the campaign in Washington and another in Oregon that was heading for the ballot in 2012. The way the Humane Society and other animal-welfare groups see it, they had a winning issue on their hands. They contend the way most eggs are produced in this country is barbaric. Hens are routinely kept penned in cages and their movement is restricted. The initiative would have tripled the typical amount of space available in cages, and would have prohibited “the cruel confinement of egg-laying hens in a manner that does not allow the hens to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, or fully extend their wings.”
Already in 2008 California voters had approved a measure that prohibited tight confinement for hens, veal calves and pregnant sows. And with the threat of an initiative looming over their heads in this state, egg producers went to the Washington Legislature this year with a different idea. Lawmakers passed a law doubling the typical cage floor space but which would also have given hens the ability to run around a bit – perching, nesting and scratching.
That’s the gist of the deal that was reached in Washington, D.C. Everybody had to give, but it was worth it, said Paul Shapiro, spokesman for the Humane Society. The Washington initiative would have affected 6 million birds, but national legislation would affect 280 million. The Humane Society could have kept going to the ballot, one state after another, but that approach wouldn’t have worked in the 26 states that do not permit initiatives.
A Big Animal-Rights Victory
“The initiative would have created a cage-free condition,” he explained. “This federal bill would not necessarily create a cage-free condition, but it would require nearly double the amount of space the birds currently get. It would require environmental enrichments that are very important for the birds such as nesting boxes, perches and scratching areas and so on, so it is a significant improvement indeed.
“Admittedly, the ballot measure would have gone further. But at the same time we have to keep in mind that the majority of states in the country do not allow ballot measures, and certainly the vast majority of the big egg-production states do not allow ballot measures, so this is a way to affect all of the laying hens in the country with an animal-welfare improvement. There is not a pathway to help birds in states where there is not a pathway for ballot initiatives.”
The proposed federal legislation also would require that egg cartons be labeled so that consumers can tell whether eggs are produced in cage-free conditions, or by hens in cages. But the most important thing about it is that it marks the first time the federal government may dictate the treatment of farm animals, other than in the slaughterhouse, Shapiro said. Think of it as a first step – there will be others. Already the National Pork Producers Council is calling the agreement “a dangerous precedent.”
Will Raise Prices
The new approach won’t be cheap. The cost of the “enhanced colony” caging system that will be required might reach $1 million per henhouse, industry sources say, based on experience in Europe, where it is coming into vogue. But at their news conference in Washington, D.C., officials of the Humane Society and the egg industry group said they doubted it would add significantly to the price of eggs, as the costs will be spread out over millions of cartons. Under the accord, the producers have 18 years to make the improvements to their caging systems.
A cage-free approach really doesn’t work on the scale needed by the American egg industry, said Mitch Head of the United Egg Producers. And while the caging of birds might be an important issue to some, truth be told, when Americans go to the supermarket, most don’t let the issue guide them.
“I think the egg farmers look at the cage-free system as kind of a niche market for people who want to buy those eggs,” he said. “But only about 3 percent of Americans buy cage-free eggs. Ninety-seven percent buy the regular eggs that come from cages, so we really didn’t think that cage-free was a long-term viable sustainable industry for America. We were fine with that option for those who wanted it. But we looked at the enriched-colony cages as really more sustainable in the long run.
“We also think that it is important and imperative to have a single national standard for egg production in the United States, rather than 10 or 20 different states, each having their own rules and regulations on how eggs will be produced and sold. There would be chaos for not only for farmers but for their customers, grocery stores, restaurant chains and consumers, and an interruption to interstate commerce as well.
“So we think pursuing a national standard and one that is sustainable long-term is probably preferable than a patchwork of individual state laws, whatever ones they would adopt, including in Washington state.”
Would Have Been ‘a Train Wreck’
Out in this Washington, egg producers have been watching the movement with some trepidation. Wilcox Farms, a major family-owned business in rural Pierce County, saw the handwriting on the wall and began transitioning toward cage-free production a few years ago, said CEO Brent Wilcox. “It seemed as though it’s what our customers wanted, and we decided it was a good decision economically,” he said.
Organic cage-free production allows a higher price.
On the other hand, the larger commodity operations had reason to fear.
“The initiative had the appearance of a train wreck,” said Greg Satrum, vice president of Willamette Egg Farms, which maintains 850,000 egg-laying hens at its ranch in Moses Lake. “When the initiative came into effect in 2018 it would have severely restricted the production and sale of eggs in Washington state, which is something that had never been done before. There was no schedule or timeline for a phased transition, and it didn’t look like it was going to work very well. The standards were insufficient in some ways and excessive in other ways, and so that’s why we were set to oppose the ballot initiative.
“The national standard is very similar to the bill that was passed and signed into law in Washington state, Senate Bill 5487. It basically sets an almost identical standard in a very similar timeline, so it’s really an approach that Northwest egg farmers were already very supportive of in our state. So we are thrilled to see the potential for a national standard which we all already essentially supported.”Willamette had contributed $93,000 to the $420,000 war-chest that had been amassed by the egg producers to fight the initiative. Now that political action committee will be dissolved and the money returned to the farmers. “We would much rather invest in making improvements on our farms than in fighting political battles,” Satrum said.