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United Egg Producers Recruits Kids In Its Sordid Campaign Against Animal Welfare

It's no secret that the United Egg Producers (UEP), the egg industry's primary trade association, has a sordid record when it comes to animal welfare. More on that in a bit. What's less well known is the group's new effort to mislead children in its seemingly never-ending crusade against cage-free egg producers. 

The UEP recently put out what it's calling “kid-friendly” messaging about the benefits of confining egg-laying hens on factory farms inside battery cages. As you can see from the UEP's cartoon below, the lobby group represents its cage-using members' interests by telling kids that birds prefer “dry, warm” cages as opposed to freedom of movement and the ability to engage in natural behavior. (More cartoons in the same vein are at the above link.)



As outlandish as the cartoon is, it represents what the UEP has been trying to do for years: fight to preserve the status quo in its industry for the sake of the bottom line by deriding egg producers who choose not to use battery cages.

A quick bit of background: Most egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages-barren wire cages so restrictive, the animals can't even spread their wings. Unable to nest, dust bathe, or perch, each bird has less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live for a year before she's slaughtered. It's hard to imagine a more miserable existence. In cage-free egg farms, while birds typically don't go outside (rendering the above cartoon even more absurd), they're at least able to walk around, lay their eggs in nests, and perch. In addition to cage-free birds typically not having outdoor access, even free-range birds are able to go inside barns when they want.

A concerted campaign to ban battery cage confinement and move the industry toward cage-free systems has been making meaningful progress in recent years. Not only are an increasing number of retailers demanding that their egg suppliers begin converting away from battery cages, but California-the nation's largest agricultural state-banned battery cage confinement (with a phase-out period) this past election. Indeed, the UEP was the architect of a failed nine-million-dollar agribusiness campaign against the new California law. As could be expected, the campaign vilified cage-free egg producers by suggesting that their eggs were less safe than those from battery-caged hens. In reality, little could be further from the truth.

The UEP's new effort to prejudice kids against cage-free egg producers is just the latest chapter in its history of questionable efforts. For example, a few years ago the UEP launched a certification program intended to assure consumers that the nation's hens are well-treated. However, the voluntary program is so lenient, it allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her entire life.

The National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau reviewed the program in detail, and ruled that the UEP was misleading consumers about animal welfare. The ruling was upheld upon appeal (More on this saga here.). Even more, when 17 attorneys general charged that the UEP was falsely advertising animal welfare claims, it paid $100,000 to settle those AGs' claims. And the UEP is currently the defendant in more than 20 consolidated class action lawsuits alleging illegal price-fixing in connection with the UEP's program.

In the end, the UEP may need more than deceptive cartoons to thwart change. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans opposes battery cages, and the momentum is certainly toward improving animal welfare. Barren battery cages are already set to be phased out in the entire European Union by 2012, and other US states are now contemplating moving in California's direction, too.

Regardless, don't expect the egg-ribusiness lobby to stop waging war against animal welfare efforts any time soon. Indeed, the UEP's past president put it bluntly when he wrote about animal welfare, “It is imperative that animal agriculture…recognize 'WE ARE AT WAR.'” Yes, the emphasis is in the original.

We all know that the UEP doesn't seem to mind misleading consumers, but it's particularly telling that its war is now taking a toll on children, as well.

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