At the JS West egg farm, south of Modesto, Calif., one chicken house has the new, spacious cages that egg producers and animal welfare advocates say keep chickens happier.
At the JS West egg farm, south of Modesto, Calif., one chicken house has the new, spacious cages that egg producers and animal welfare advocates say keep chickens happier.

Farmers, Humane Society Partner On Chicken-Cage Revolution
by Dan Charles / January 26, 2012

When I first saw the press release, I figured it had to be an April Fools’ joke. The Humane Society of the United States, a voice of outrage against all heartless exploitation of animals, joining hands with the United Egg Producers, which represents an industry that keeps 200 million chickens in cages? But it’s true. This unprecedented partnership is asking Congress to pass a law (just introduced this week) that’s supposed to improve the lives of egg-laying hens. If passed, it would be the first federal law that takes into account the emotional lives of farm animals. Specifically, it would force egg producers to build new, roomier housing for hundreds of millions of birds. Some background: Ninety percent of America’s eggs are laid by chickens that live in long rows of metal wire cages. Each cage holds about eight hens, and they’re packed in pretty tightly. At the henhouse that I visited recently, owned by a family-run enterprise called JS West and Cos. in Modesto, Calif., each hen has, on average, 67 square inches — less than the area of a standard sheet of paper. John Bedell, who’s in charge of egg production at this site, says the chickens are not being mistreated. “Hear that sound?” he says. “When they’re just sort of clucking away, making that sound, that’s the sound of happy chickens.”

To be sure, the air in this building is pretty clean (especially considering that 150,000 chickens live in it), the temperature is comfortable, and the hens don’t have to worry about foxes eating them. But ever since cages became standard in the egg industry some 50 years ago, many people have been horrified by them. “These birds can’t even spread their wings,” says Paul Shapiro, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States. “These are living, feeling, sentient animals who are caught up in the food system, and at a bare minimum, they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives; not to be immobilized to the point where they can’t even extend their limbs.”Despite their outrage, though, advocates of animal welfare weren’t able to do much against the cages. For egg producers, the cages made economic sense. They made egg production possible on an unprecedented scale, delivering cheap eggs to consumers. But over the past few years, the situation has changed dramatically. The shift started in Europe. In 1999, the European Commission approved a directive that orders egg producers to give their chickens almost twice as much room. The directive finally took effect this year, on New Year’s Day. Major food retailers, especially in northern Europe, have gone further, and now sell only eggs from cage-free operations, where hens run around loose in barns.

Here in the U.S., California took the lead. In 2008, voters there overwhelmingly approved a proposition that the Humane Society of the U.S. drafted. “What Prop. 2 says is that laying hens must be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs. That’s it,” says Shapiro. The law takes effect in 2015. This may sound simple, but egg producers say it has created paralysis, because they have no idea what it requires. Does it mean that chickens have to be cage-free? Does it just mean bigger cages? How big is big enough? Regulators in California have provided no answers. On top of that, similar voter initiatives passed in other states. Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, which represents companies that produce about 95 percent of the country’s eggs, says it looked like the industry would have to satisfy dozens of different — as well as confusing — state requirements. “It was going to be a nightmare, trying to produce eggs and have a free flow of eggs across state lines. So we reached out to the Humane Society and said, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this,’ ” says Gregory.  To the astonishment of many, the Humane Society was willing to talk. Shapiro says it was a chance to have an impact on the welfare of chickens all across the country, including in states where animal-rights activists weren’t likely to get any new regulations passed. In early July, the two sides announced that they had reached an agreement to jointly lobby Congress for new federal rules that would phase out all traditional chicken cages within 15 years. The law was formally introduced this week.

As a minimum, the chickens would have to be held in so-called enriched cages — a style developed in Europe. These cages are a compromise between efficient, large-scale production and letting chickens do some things that they seem to really like. At the JS West farm, south of Modesto, one chicken house already has these cages. I notice right away that chickens in this building have almost twice as much space as the ones I saw next door. Jill Benson, one of the company’s owners, points out other features. There are metal bars for the birds to perch on, and enclosed spaces, called nest boxes. Those spaces seem really popular among the hens. The new cages at JS West feature enclosed spaces, shown in red, called nest boxes. The spaces seem really popular among the hens. “The birds, in fact, line up to go into the nest box,” says Benson. “They like to go out of the bright light and go into a nest box to lay their eggs.” As we watch, we catch a glimpse of one chicken doing exactly that. A wet, warm egg rolls slowly out of the nest box. Perches and nest boxes are specifically required in the new proposed law.

Benson says she wants this law to pass. Building new chicken houses would cost her company millions of dollars. But she says she can live with that. It probably works out to about an extra penny per egg. But most important: She’d know exactly what to build, and the rules would be the same across the country. So if United Egg Producers, representing 95 percent of all U.S. egg production, wants this law and some of the industry’s fiercest enemies do too, who could be against it? Well, as it happens, some influential farm organizations. Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it. Bill Donald, a rancher in Melville, Mont., and president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says it would be a terrible precedent to get the government involved in keeping farm animals happy. Who knows what regulations might come next? “It isn’t a very large leap from egg production to chicken production to beef production,” he says. It’s a situation that would have been unthinkable just a year ago: Egg farmers arm in arm with the Humane Society of the United States, in a political battle with ranchers and dairymen.

The new cages at JS West feature enclosed spaces, shown in red, called nest boxes. The spaces seem really popular among the hens.

Egg Industry Bill Would Keep Hens in Cages Forever

“Opposing ballot measures is very expensive. The only way we can avoid them is through federal preemption. That is the reason why we need federal legislation.” — Gene Gregory, President, United Egg Producers

The egg industry’s trade association – the United Egg Producers (UEP) – has hatched an insidious plan: It is now pushing for federal legislation that, if enacted, would forever keep hens locked in cages, despite the wishes of the vast majority of the American public. Under the guise of “enriching” cages, the egg industry’s legislation would: Nullify existing state laws that ban or restrict battery cages. Deprive voters of the right and ability to pass ballot measures banning cages. Deny state legislatures the ability to enact laws to outlaw battery cages or otherwise regulate egg factory conditions.

To accomplish this, UEP’s federal legislation would amend what is known as the “Egg Products Inspection Act.” Specifically, the amendment (H.R. 3798) seeks to federally establish that egg factory cages would be legally accepted as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote. UEP claims that its legislation would eventually result in “progress” for laying hens. Just the opposite is true. In reality, the egg industry merely agreed to slowly (at the glacial pace of 18 years) continue the meager changes in battery cage conditions that are already occurring due to state laws and public pressure. Please help make clear to our elected leaders that the egg industry’s unprecedented attack on anti-cruelty laws, states’ rights, and animal protection must not stand. Click here to read a veterinary perspective on the Rotten Egg Bill.

Responding to the Rotten Egg Bill’s (H.R. 3798) Specific Points
For political cover, UEP inserted a few diversionary provisions. None of them holds up to scrutiny.

Ammonia Levels: The Rotten Egg Bill contains nothing that alters current standards for “ammonia levels.” The bill merely duplicates UEP’s existing standards (which allow unhealthful levels of ammonia) and seeks to put that into federal law.

Forced Molting and Euthanasia: As for ending the practice of forced molting of hens by “starvation” and water deprivation – egg companies do not advocate that to begin with. Far from changing any currently accepted molting practice, the bill merely adopts UEP’s own existing standards. The same goes for “euthanasia” standards and other empty provisions tossed in to distract from the central issue: keeping hens in cages.

UEP’s Game of Inches: Prior to the Rotten Egg Bill, the egg industry passed state legislation calling for 116 square inches of cage space per hen. With a mere 8 square inch adjustment, UEP’s federal bill calls for a still cruel and depriving 124 square inches per hen – “phased-in” over 18 years. This token modification does not “double” the cage space from what UEP has already advocated as a standard. The bill’s own proponents have stated that a hen needs at least 216 square inches just to spread her wings.

Decriminalizing Animal Abuse: The bill contains no criminal penalties whatsoever. While overriding state laws which do contain appropriate criminal penalties, the Rotten Egg Bill would shift all authority to the industry-controlled USDA.

Fraudulent Labeling: As far as labeling egg cartons, UEP’s Rotten Egg Bill certainly would do that. For the very first time, the fraudulent term “enriched” cages would begin appearing on egg cartons nationwide – in order to deflect public concern – and to increase egg sales from caged hens.

The position of the Humane Farming Association and other responsible activists and organizations remains clear: Cruelty is cruelty. There is no such thing as an “enriched” battery cage. No humane organization should ever endorse these abusive confinement systems. Our state laws and voting rights must not be given away.

“If the legislation does not advance, [industry] would be headed toward cage-free production as the dominant, if not the only, form of egg production.” — Feedstuffs, agribusiness news journal, explaining why the egg industry is seeking to advance its federal legislation 

A lone hen escapes from her battery cage (photo: Farm Sanctuary)

New Legislation Would Improve Living Conditions of Egg-Laying Hens
by Patrick Glennon / Jan 26, 2012

Earlier this week, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House that would seek to ameliorate the living conditions of egg-laying hens. H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, is the result of a joint effort of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP). Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, said in a press release that the resolution is “historic and unprecedented,” reflecting a degree of cooperation between animal rights activists and industry representatives hitherto unseen.

Chad Gregory, Senior Vice President of UEP, noted that the changes will require $4 billion in sacrifices, but that the move is necessary and that the industry is a willing partner: “This has been an incredibly grueling process, but we’re here today excited to recognize and celebrate this monumental achievement.” For years, HSUS has lobbied for state-level regulation of industrial egg production. A complex web of varying state regulations—reflecting radically different conceptions of animal treatment and welfare—was very costly for the UEP, which represents 88 percent of U.S. egg production. Looking to standardize regulation and to appease its critics, UEP began working with HSUS in July 2011.

The primary purpose of the legislation is to phase out the use of battery cages—tiny confines that currently house over 280 million hens in the U.S. These cages can be as small as a piece of printer paper, leaving no room for a hen to extend her wings, stand up or stretch. Stacked in tiers, battery cages prohibit hens from engaging in their natural behavior. As a result, hens can become crazed, pecking violently at neighboring birds and themselves. Curing the symptom rather than addressing the cause, many egg producers cut off hens’ beaks to prevent them from mauling others, instead of allowing them greater space to roam.

The legislation would affect a number of changes on the industry, should it pass Congress:
• It would replace battery cages with “enhanced colony housing.” These new environs would give birds double the space of average battery cages.
• After a phase-in period of larger housing facilities, the legislation would mandate environmental enhancements—such as perches and scratch pads—that would provide outlets for hens’ instinctive behavior.
• The resolution would also require clearly detailed labeling on all eggs nationwide that describe the living conditions of the animals. These labels would include: “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enhanced cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens” and “eggs from free range hens.”

In addition, the resolution would rectify several other cruel industry practices, including forced molting—the technique of depriving hens water and feed in order to stimulate quicker egg-laying cycles. The legislation would provide great relief to many birds currently held in inhumane conditions across the United States. Many other deplorable practices, however, would remain intact. Egg-laying hens are genetically manipulated to produce eggs at a higher rate. While this accelerates egg production, it also causes hens’ bodies to degenerate faster. Hens usually remain in egg production for only a year, after which they are killed at a young age for use in animal feed or low-quality chicken meat products. Even if their life were to become slightly more comfortable with double the (very small) space they currently have, they would still likely continue to die very prematurely.

Additionally, the industry treats male chicks born to egg-laying hens with shocking disregard. Chickens have been genetically altered in order to enhance their economic output—this means that “broilers” (chickens reared for meat production) have been genetically altered to produce a greater amount of breast meat and that layers have been genetically altered to optimize egg production. As a consequence of the U.S. market’s preference for broiler-meat, the male chicks of layers have no economic benefit for agribusiness. Male chicks are thus “destroyed” shortly after birth. This is done through numerous ways. They are sometimes sucked through air tubes and thrown against an electric pad, electrocuting them. Others are sent on a conveyor belt through what is known as a macerator (think: wood chipper). Reforming the industrial food production system is an important way of improving animals’ lives, but basic reforms shouldn’t obscure other cruelties that are inherent to the system.

chickens on egg farm
A still image from a Humane Society of the United States undercover video shows caged chickens on an egg farm. A Florida effort that would outlaw the gathering of undercover photos and video was dropped, but five other states are still attempting to pass similar laws in 2012. (Humane Society of the United States)

MEANWHILE : VIDEOTAPING in FACTORY FARMS still LEGAL  [without the consent of the hens?],0,5292310.story
Florida Legislature drops anti-videotaping language
by Dean Kuipers  /  January 26, 2012,

The Florida Legislature has dropped a controversial provision that would have made it a crime to photograph or videotape on agricultural facilities without consent. We have reported previously on this blog that several states have attempted to thwart whistle-blowers and animal rights activists by making it a crime to record images on a farm, lab or other animal enterprise. Of course, many other actions such as trespassing, removing animals and other acts are already illegal.

Florida was taking a lead in this push, but in the last few days its legislature has removed the image collection language – derisively called an “ag gag” provision by activists – from state House Bill 1021 and state Senate Bill 1184. “These bills threaten animal welfare,” says Suzanne McMillan, director of Farm Animal Welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who has monitored these bills. “However, they also threaten constitutional rights, they have a chilling effect on speech. Which is a serious concern. Any time you limit speech, legally, a higher threshold needs to be met and it’s certainly not being met in this case.” The animal welfare organization points out that an undercover video made at a Florida dairy farm was used to pass humane slaughter and euthanasia laws. That video showed calves with gunshot wounds left in a watery pit to drown.

Video and photos gathered by undercover activists and even news reporters has been a mainstay of investigative journalism for decades. There has been some question as to whether the actual gathering of images also violates the broad federal 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes it illegal to negatively affect the profits of an animal enterprise. The Center for Constitutional Rights is currently challenging that financial harm provision in court. Four other states are now considering such video and photo bans, including Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. “These bills are a direct threat to us controlling our food supply and to the American public understanding where it’s food comes from,” McMillan adds . “If large animal agribusiness has nothing to hide, why is it supporting these kinds of bills? Time and again, undercover investigations have revealed these exact problems: food safety concerns, animal welfare violations, environmental violations.”

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