In an unlikely alliance, egg producers are teaming up with animal rights activists to back a plan requiring larger cages on chicken farms.
It's the latest example of how advocacy groups are driving changes on American farms.
Under pressure from animal welfare groups, fast-food giant McDonald’s, major meat-processor Hormel and others recently agreed to end the use of tightly-confining pens at their suppliers’ pig farms.
Battery cage battle
Nearly all eggs in the United States come from large facilities where hens are kept in small pens called battery cages.
The Humane Society of the United States and other animal-welfare groups consider them cruel because the birds have little room to move and can get caught and injured in the cages’ metal wires.
Animal welfare groups say chickens in battery cages are not given enough room to move or raise their wings.
In 2008, the groups collected enough signatures for a California state ballot initiative to ban the battery cages. The advertising war was fierce.
Farm-group ads said the law would raise food prices, increase the risk of diseases and put farmers out of business. The humane society ads disagreed, showing graphic hidden-camera videos of animal abuse at large farms.
Jill Benson, senior vice president at JS West and Companies, a major California egg producer, campaigned against the proposal.
“At the end of the day, the voters made it clear that they wanted changes in the hen habitat," she says. "And so, we felt it was important that we listen.”
After the initiative passed and became state law, JS West became the first company in the United States to install so-called “enriched” cages for its hens.
The birds get twice as much space as in the old battery cages. And the enriched cages have perches, areas to dust-bathe and nesting boxes where the hens lay their eggs.
Jill Benson’s company, JS West, became the first in the United States to install enriched cages.
While she doesn't think the hens were unhappy in the old cages, Benson she says they definitely like the new cages. “What was a surprise is that the hens are producing just as many eggs, if not more, and they’re living better. In fact, there’s less mortality.”
The company has even installed live webcams so the public can see the hens in the new cages in real time.
Now the humane society is pushing for a federal law that would require these cages nationwide.
“The laws and the policies that we are seeking to implement, while not necessarily creating idyllic living conditions for these animals by any means, would be significant advancements,” says Paul Shapiro, head of the society’s farm-animal program.
To her surprise, Benson finds herself on the same side as the humane society.
"As a long-time adversary of the Humane Society of the United States, I have to say that it’s a little bit of a different situation," she says. "We cannot survive in a climate where there’s a patchwork of state-by-state rules.”
Benson believes since eggs are shipped nationwide, the rules for how they are produced need to be uniform.
When California passed its rule, four other states were considering putting the issue to voters as well. Egg farmers worried they would lose those battles, says Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers (UEP), the biggest egg-farmers’ group in the country.
“So what we did, we reached out to the Humane Society of the United States and said, ‘Let’s have a discussion about this and see if we can’t resolve this conflict,’" Gregory says. "And surprisingly, we were able to do this.”
UEP and the Humane Society are now working together to lobby for national legislation.
That move is opposed by other farm groups, including the nation’s largest, the American Farm Bureau Federation. Kelli Ludlum is livestock policy specialist for the Farm Bureau.
“I think it puts us on kind-of a slippery slope," says Kelli Ludlum, livestock policy specialist for the farm bureau, "to make changes that may not ultimately be in the best interests of either animals, producers or consumers.”
According to Ludlum, there are good reasons for some of the practices animal-welfare advocates consider inhumane. Hens peck each other less in smaller cages, for example. And since enriched cages cost more, they push up the cost of eggs.
Ludlum says consumers should be able to choose whether or not to spend more. “But I think that this really eliminates that choice by requiring everyone shift to the enriched cages.”
Ludlum is also concerned about the legal precedent that a new federal rule on animal welfare would set for other livestock producers.
The National Pork Producers Council also opposes the bill. It says the industry is responding to its customers, including McDonald’s and Hormel, who are phasing out confining crates for pigs, which animal welfare groups oppose.
And that fundamental change, they say, does not require an act of Congress.