The 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States — and their farmers — are one step closer to having uniform standards for humane housing and care. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress has introduced the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. The legislation is the result of a long-needed meeting of the minds between animal welfare advocates and Big Egg: American egg farmers would have a level playing field and hens would have more space.
After years of battles with animal welfare advocates pushing for legislation to upgrade the squalid conditions in which most egg-producing hens are kept, a number of states passed new laws, while others did not. Farmers complained that the country was left with a patchwork of conflicting laws governing the farming and selling of eggs that threatened to undermine their businesses. In California, for example, the egg industry and this page were opposed to Proposition 2, the successful 2008 ballot measure banning cramped cages for egg-laying hens, on the grounds that it would disadvantage California farmers competing against sellers of cheaper eggs from states without a similar requirement. Since then, the state has approved a supplemental measure that forbids the sale of eggs in the state from farmers who do not follow the same practices as California's.
To rectify the confusing national situation, the Humane Society of the U.S. and the United Egg Producers agreed last summer on new standards for hens and pledged to work together for federal legislation. The House bill, which will be followed by a companion measure in the Senate, would eliminate "battery cages" — in which hens are unable to spread their wings — and replace them with "colony cages" that offer about twice as much space. The birds would also get perches and other elements that let them behave like hens and not just cogs in an egg factory. The bill would prohibit excessive levels of ammonia — which result from the birds' excrement — in henhouses. And it would outlaw nationwide the transport and sale of eggs that are not produced under these standards.
The bill calls for a phase-in over 15 to 18 years, so the retrofitting of barns would not be onerous for farmers. Although the legislation would supersede Proposition 2, the phase-in in California would be quicker and in line with the schedule already set out in it.
A federal law is the only way to mandate uniform standards, and this smart and focused measure is supported by the United Egg Producers, which represents 88% of the nation's egg farmers. As legislation goes, it's a good egg.