US egg producers and animal rights lobbyists have teamed up in a bid to force the government to ban the use of conventional cages for laying hens.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents about 80% of the national flock, have reached an “unprecedented agreement” calling for new federal legislation to improve the welfare for all 280 million hens involved in US egg production.
In particular, they want conventional cages, currently used by 92% of the US egg industry, to be replaced with new, enriched housing that will provide each hen nearly double the space, as well as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
The agreement also calls for mandatory labelling to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, and looks to prohibit forced moulting as a way of extending the laying cycle.
If successful, the new legislation would see space per bird increase over the next 15 to 18 years, from the current 67sq inch norm to a new minimum of 124-144 sq inches.
“Our commitment to a national standard for hen welfare is in the best interest of our animals, customers and consumers,” said Bob Krouse, chairman of UEP. “We believe a national standard is far superior than a patchwork of state laws that would be cumbersome and confusing.”
HSUS said that, while it would continue encouraging consumers and corporations to switch from cage to cage-free eggs, the agreement with the UEP marked “significant progress in America’s evolution toward better animal treatment”.
If passed by Congress, the legislation would supersede state laws. But in recognition of laws already passed by voters in California, UEP and HSUS will ask Congress to require California egg producers – with nearly 20 million laying hens – to eliminate conventional cages by 2015.
A statement from the Association of California Egg Farmers welcomed the recognition by the HSUS that the enriched colony system was a suitable hen habitat, but was disappointed its members would be treated differently to those in other states.
“While the rest of the nation’s egg producers have until 2029 to spend an estimated $5bn to comply with this agreement, California egg farmers must comply by 2015,” said association president Arnie Riebli.
The National Pork Producers Council was also disgruntled, saying the agreement would “set a dangerous precedent”, allowing government to tell producers how to care for their animals.
But Compassion in World Farming said the move would bring the USA closer in line with EU production. “We believe all egg-laying hens should live cage-free lives,” said chief executive Philip Lymbery. “This new development, while not going far enough, is a significant step in the right direction.”