August 30, 2011
By Peter Spendelow, Contributing Writer
On July 7th, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) announced an agreement to jointly seek federal legislation to ban battery cages for egg-laying hens. In return for federal protection for hens, HSUS agreed to not file the 355,000 signatures that were to be filed that day to put Initiative 1130 on the ballot in Washington, and also agreed to suspend signature gathering in Oregon on a similar measure.
HSUS had been using state initiatives to provide protection for egg-laying hens, starting with California's highly successful Proposition 2. That proposition still holds the record for the largest number of "yes" votes ever in any state initiative campaign in the United States. As Wayne Pacelle of HSUS explained to initiative supporters the night before the agreement was announced, the Washington and Oregon measures together would have protected the 9 million hens in those states, but states like Iowa have 55 million egg-laying hens, and have no initiative process to allow taking this campaign directly to the people. Most battery-cage hens are given only 67 square inches per bird to live out their entire life in battery cages, but some of these Iowa birds are crammed so tightly into cages that each bird has only 48 square inches. A national agreement was the only way to provide a better life for these birds.
If this proposed federal legislation passes Congress, it will be the first federal legislation ever for farm animals while still on the farm, and the first federal law of any kind protecting chickens. Chickens are exempt from both the federal humane slaughter act and the 28-hour federal transportation law. For the egg producers, possible federal legislation means that they will not have to deal with different requirements in different states.
The agreement calls for HSUS and UEP to jointly seek federal legislation that would:
- 1. Ban the new construction of barren battery cages.
- 2. Phase in requirements to provide every hen with about double the space of current cage systems, plus provide all birds with enrichments such as scratching areas, perches, and nesting areas.
- 3. Require all egg cartons be labeled with the method used to produce the eggs, such as "eggs from caged hens" or "eggs from cage-free hens."
- 4. Prohibit forced molting through starvation--a cruel practice where birds are denied food for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle.
- 5. Prohibit excess levels of toxic ammonia in hen houses--something that harms both the birds and the workers.
- 6. Prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that do not meet these requirements. Although HSUS and UEP have reached this agreement, passage of federal legislation is far from being a done deal. Other animal agriculture lobbies, such as the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, are opposing this agreement. It will be a hard fight to get this legislation through Congress.
Although the proposed legislation would lead to significant improvements in the lives of hens, huge problems would still remain. Many hens would still have the ends of their bills painfully seared off without anesthesia when young, to prevent them from pecking at and damaging or killing each other in the cages. Although the birds will be able to walk around, scratch, and perch on perches (things they cannot do now), many cages will still be less than two feet high, preventing the birds from flying up and getting much exercise. Plus, the male chicks from egg-laying hens will still be considered useless, since they do not grow fast enough for meat production, so they will be killed within hours of birth. Still, currently hens are arguably the most abused of all the animals subject to factory farm conditions and, if this legislation passes, it will result in significant improvements in the quality of their lives.