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Better housing for hens may mean higher prices for eggs

July 7, 2011 | 12:54 pm

Chicken This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

If animal welfare advocates and the nation’s largest egg farmers have their way, the future is looking rosy for chickens -– and Americans will likely be forced to spend a bit more for their eggs.

On Thursday, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers announced that they are jointly petitioning Congress for legislation that will require all farmers in the U.S. to adopt new standards on the size of cages used for hens that lay eggs.

The new standard would move from a 48- to 67-square-inch cage space per bird, to an enclosure that is 124 square inches per bird. In addition, the enclosures would include a perch for the bird, dust bathing area, scratching areas and a nesting box for hens to lay their eggs.

Such a federal standard would force the agriculture industry to stop using battery cages for egg-laying hens, a practice that was at the heart of California’s Proposition 2, which aimed to bar the “cruel confinement” of farm animals.

The cost of overhauling the housing of nearly 300 million chickens is estimated to reach $4 billion, a price tag egg industry officials say will be covered by farmers. Some of that cost, however, would be passed on to consumers. How much more this would ultimately cost consumers, however, is unknown.

During a news conference Thursday, officials for the egg producers noted that American consumers are increasingly demanding -- and willing to pay more for -- cage-free eggs and other products being raised in farm conditions more attuned to animal welfare.

The groups' goal is to have the law implemented by June and adopted by the entire industry by the end of 2029.

If passed, such a federal mandate may pose a challenge for small to mid-sized California egg farmers, who are already wrestling with mounting costs and growing legal questions over how to comply with Prop. 2's 2015 compliance deadline.

But Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society, said that the industry shift was both necessary and inevitable.

“If some of these farms don’t have the financial resources to change, then that sort of production practice needs to fade away,” Pacelle said. “We need federal standards that everyone understands and abide with.”

Both sides said Thursday that federal legislation -- rather than the current hodgepodge of state laws and regulations -- was the only way to deal with what has long been an intense political and economic battle between the agriculture industry and animal welfare advocates.

The news was a rare moment of agreement between the long-warring enemies, involving undercover videos that became an all-too-common headache for farmers.

The Humane Society has aggressively backed state legislation in recent years that alters how animals are treated in the food-production system. The agriculture community, in turn, had fought back by lobbying in Washington and backing state anti-trespassing bills that would bar people from photographing farmland without permission.

As part of the agreement, the Humane Society and United Egg Producers said they will not "initiate, fund or support" any ballot initiatives or local or state legislation that would define hen space; neither would they back investigations or litigation against each other or United Egg Producers members.

For the record, 2:25 p.m. July 7: A previous version of this post reported that the groups commented on the issue Wednesday. Their comments were made Thursday.

--P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A Leghorn hen peers out from a cage at a California farm. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

 

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