Senate panel considers national egg producing standards

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 26, 2012- Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said proposed legislation that would require national hen housing standards for egg producers represents a compromise supported by a majority of the egg industry, although Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned that it would hurt small egg farmers during a committee hearing Wednesday.

“For this industry it's absolutely critical that they not be caught with the state by state patchwork of standards,” Stabenow said, regarding the uncertainty varying egg production laws give to producers crossing their product over state lines.

The hearing on S. 3239, the “Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012," sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., included testimony from members of the United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents the ownership of almost 90 percent of the nation's egg-laying hens. The organization worked out a compromise on the legislation in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

If enacted, the proposal requires egg producers to increase space per hen with the amount of space hens are given increasing, in intervals, over the next 15 to 18 years. According to UEP, the majority of hens are now provided 67 square inches of space. By the end of the phase-in, the proposal would require a minimum of 124 square inches of space for white hens and 144 for brown hens nationwide. 

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“Farmers with 3,000 birds or fewer are specifically exempt from the provisions of this legislation,” Feinstein testified. “For those who are affected by our bill, there is a long phase-in period up to 18 years. In this period of time, most producers replace their cages anyway.”

However, witness Amon Baer, also a UEP board member and owner of Mendelson Egg Company, opposed the legislation, claiming the costs for production updates would be devastating for small egg farmers.

“The bill will essentially kill the small family egg farm,” he said. “The bill, if passed, would benefit the 180 mega operations to the detriment of the 1,800 family farms.”

According to Baer, the national standard would require his nephew, who recently invested $2.5 million in new housing intended to last 30 years, to replace the equipment. 

“His replacement cost to convert to enriched housing and maintain his production base would double up to $5 million,” Baer said. “Based on 40 years of my experience in the egg industry, he would not be able to raise the capital necessary to accomplish that, especially in today's tight credit markets.”

Other witnesses at the hearing testified that a national standard is the best solution for the challenges of the egg industry. JS West & Companies President Eric Benson noted the “growing problems in the egg industry,” including the “growing patchwork of inconsistent state animal welfare laws that began with California's Proposition 2.” 

California's Proposition 2, passed in 2008 and in full effect in 2015, created a new state statute that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

“It's not just the various rules we have, it's also the way they're going to be interpreted,” Benson said. “If the rules are not clear, we don't know what to do going forward.”

“And HSUS recognizes that only a single, uniform national standard will allow producers in all states to compete fairly and provide a sustainable future for our families,” Benson added. 

Executive Vice President of Herbruck's Poultry Ranch, Greg Herbruck, said California's Proposition 2, which passed by a two-to-one margin in 2008, is just the beginning of inconsistency for the egg industry. Similar measures are in place in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Ohio and Oregon. 

“It will be an impossible task to keep track of which eggs were produced in which states and to meet all the different standards of every state,” he said. “You can see that we are on the road to chaos.”

“Unfortunately, the private sector alone can't solve this problem,” Herbruck added. “We are at the mercy of the next activist group that wants to mandate cage-free production in our state.”

Regarding the cost of the housing standard to consumers, UEP Chairman David Lathem cited an Agralytica study that showed over an 18-year phase-in time period, the legislation would add less than two cents to the cost of a dozen eggs.  

However, Roberts questioned the science behind the proposed standard, as well as its affects on the price that consumers will pay for eggs. 

“European consumers are dealing with these challenges now,” Roberts explained. “European consumers saw their supply of eggs drop 10-15 percent soon after their government implemented its version of this law-a decrease which lead to a 55 percent increase in the price of eggs.”

Baer drove home the point in his testimony, claiming the ongoing cost increases for USDA to enforce the legislation outweigh the one-time implementation estimates. 

“The cost to implement S. 3239 ranges from $4 billion as acknowledged by the United Egg Producers, to $10 billion, as disclosed by farmers who have already priced out the transition to enriched housing,” Baer said. “For small and medium sized farmers, this cost is terminal.” 

Lathem claimed the UEP-HSUS compromise is more efficient than Europe's mandate, particularly regarding the phase-in period of 18 years, which could minimize the cost. 

“We wanted to ensure that we didn't have what happened in Europe,” he said. “Our legislation is much better well thought-out and planned.”

He said over 18 years, the incremental cost will be closer to $3 billion. “I think that's reasonable when at the end of day all farmers are here to please the public and serve what they want.”

“What we've seen now is that our consumers, through ballot initiatives and customer plans, want to be involved in how food is produced,” Lathem said. “What we need is a consistent, level playing field with everybody on the same program. I don't think it's right that some of us go out because they live in the wrong state.”

Along with Feinstein, S. 3239 is co-sponsored by Senators Stabenow, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct.; Scott Brown, R-Mass.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Joseph Lieberman, I-Ct.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Jeff Merkley, D-Oreg.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.;  Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; David Vitter, R-La.; and Ron Wyden, D-Oreg. The bill must be considered by the committee before being taken up in the Senate. An identical companion bill in the House, H.R. 3798, is sponsored by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oreg., with almost 120 co-sponsors. 

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