Landmark Deal Between Humane Society and Egg Producers: What This Means For the Eggs You're Eating

When news broke on July 7 that United Egg Producers (UEP) had struck a deal with its longtime nemesis, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a lot of people had to check and make sure they weren't reading the Onion by mistake. The surprise announcement drew gasps of "stunning," "historic," and "landmark" from observers in the food and agriculture community, as the often bitter antagonists appear to have buried the hatchet, at least temporarily, and not up each other's bottoms. Gary Truitt, in Hoosier Ag Today, wrote: "Unprecedented does not do the situation justice."

The former adversaries will jointly seek federal legislation based on their multi-point agreement to increase animal welfare standards on egg farms. The industry-standard cage currently used by more than 90 percent of producers will be phased out. Replacements will be equipped with perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas so the animals can attempt to act and feel like chickens, and the space allotted per chicken will nearly double. Practices like starvation-induced molting to extend the laying cycle will end, and limits will be placed on ammonia levels in henhouses. The agreement also calls for labeling mandates, which if enacted could be its most enduring legacy.

Producers of the other white meat are wary of this agreement. The National Pork Producer's Council unleashed a scathing response, saying that if the agreement is enacted it will "take away producers' freedom to operate in a way that's best for their animals, make it difficult to respond to consumer demands, raise retail meat prices and take away consumer choice."

It's ironic the pork industry would claim the egg agreement would threaten consumer choice. It only came about because consumers did choose, decisively. California, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio have already passed ballot initiatives for reforms similar to those called for by the new national agreement, and similar efforts are currently underway in Oregon and Washington. California's Prop 2 passed by the largest margin of any referendum in state history.

UEP chose to bargain at the federal level rather then face state-by-state rejection of the practices it currently endorses. And while some are calling the agreed upon reforms a decisive victory for chicken rights, industry may see it as a strategic retreat that secures a pretty good deal in the long run. The proposed reforms would roll out at a seemingly glacial pace, especially in chicken years. As written it will be 18 years from the date of enactment before the improvements are fully phased in. And even if you double the size of a cage, it's still a cage.

This probably isn't the paradigm shift most chicken-rights activists, in their heart of hearts, really want. By signing off on improvements to the industry's worst practices, HSUS may be forfeiting the opportunity to make future enhancements to the quality of life of the nation's almost 300 million layers. By discussing cage size, HSUS is acknowledging that the answer to the underlying question, "Should cages be allowed?" is yes.

I asked Josh Balk, a spokesman at the Humane Society, if he thought this deal limits the potential to enact future improvements. "It hasn't limited the upside in other parts of the world where similar laws have passed, like the EU, where there's a thriving cage-free market," he said. "And while EU laws don't require cage-free housing systems, major corporations throughout the continent have shifted to buying cage-free eggs. For example, more than half the eggs in the UK are from cage-free hens."

If the same pattern holds in the states it will be good news for non-factory chicken farmers, including the mom-and-pop operations that package eggs in reused cartons with kid-drawn rainbows on the label next to sunny, baseless claims like "we hug our chickens." At the same time, if the agreement makes it through Congress, the days of label-by-whimsy may be over.

If enacted as law, the agreement's labeling mandates would add valuable clarity and accountability where it's sorely needed. Egg cartons have always been a lawless landscape where any claims are made, few rules are enforced, and the rare labels with legal standing are usually irrelevant anyway.

"Natural," for example, says absolutely nothing about how something was produced. It only refers to the absence of additives in processing. In the case of eggs, "natural" eggs means "just eggs." The "hormone-free" egg (or chicken) label is about as meaningful as "carbon-based." No hormones are approved for use on chickens, so every legally sold egg is "hormone-free."

The Humane Society and UEP propose that cartons bear labels identifying "caged," "enhanced cages," "cage-free," or "free-range" layers. The "caged" option will be phased out, along with the practice, over the course of the 18-year transition. If enacted, these labels would be the first instance of federally mandated disclosure of farming practices, raising process to the status shared by the product's ingredients as information you have a right to know.

The four-tiered labeling system would link production practices more closely with market demand, and in doing so would train consumers to consider how chickens are raised. Just as people now recognize milk as whole, 2 percent, skim, or non-fat, they would become versed in the language of egg farming.

With milk products the choice is purely about "which fat percentage is better for me?" But the egg-agreement is framed in terms of chicken welfare. Whether noticeable differences emerge among different egg categories remains to be seen. And it's possible that science, if not the senses, will be able to discern different levels of hormones, cholesterol and other biomolecules.

Of course, the best factory farmed eggs are still far from being the best eggs. If you want to see a big difference in quality, seek eggs from pastured chickens. "Pastured" means the birds spend most of their time outside, scratching in the dirt, having dust baths, eating plants and bugs, and all that good chicken stuff. By comparison, the highest category in the proposed agreement, "free-range," means only that the birds have "access to the outdoors," which often means nothing more than a small dirt patch. Organic eggs will also be noticeably better tasting, as will eggs that are uncertified but organic at heart, if you can spot them. Here's a clue: They're the ones with the kid-drawn rainbow on the label.

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