Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 3 - Strange Coop-Fellows

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 1 - California's Prop 2"

Read "Edging Away From Cruel Eggs: Part 2—Slogging Toward Enactment"

Consumer polls have consistently shown that the majority of egg buyers think that keeping hens in small cages is cruel, that they would prefer to buy cage-free eggs, and that they would be willing to pay more for them.  So when California voters passed Propostion 2, “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” in 2008, an initiative that mandated more humane conditions for chickens by 2015, that’s when the egg industry should have gotten to work figuring out the best way to give their customers what they wanted.  Instead, what ensued was years of turmoil and stress as most in the egg industry looked for every possible way to block the changes required by Prop 2. 

In Part 2 of this series, I wrote about how certain egg producers rolled out “enhanced” cages as their answer to the required changes.  In spite of the positive spin of their PR fanfare, enhanced cages were really still just cages—they just gave each hen slightly more space.  I also discussed a lawsuit filed in California State Court in 2010 by egg companies that argued that the new rules were too vague because Prop 2 didn’t specifically say how much space a chicken really needed.  The case was ultimately dismissed in 2011.

Chickens in Battery Cages  (Wikipedia Commons - public domain)
It took less than a year for the next legal challenge—this lawsuit was so very similar to the first one that they could have been twins.  William Cramer, a trustee of a family business that owned egg farms in Riverside County, filed his suit in Federal District Court.  He claimed that Prop 2 violated the US Constitution because its vagueness would prompt arbitrary enforcement.  He maintained that most egg farmers would stop operating rather than comply with the new regulations, which would result in skyrocketing egg prices.  The Association of California Egg Farmers (ACEF) joined this suit just as it had the previous one.

This lawsuit was not successful, either.  The case was heard by U.S. District Court Judge John Walter who sounded a bit irritated in his ruling, maybe because this ground had already been plowed in the previous suit.  Judge Walter ruled that "Proposition 2 establishes a clear test that any law enforcement officer can apply, and that test does not require the investigative acumen of Columbo to determine if an egg farmer is in violation of the statute.”  He dryly stated that "the mere fact that Plaintiff dislikes or disagrees with the policy or language of Proposition 2 is not sufficient to sustain a Constitutional challenge."

Before the dust had settled on the U.S. district court case, ACEF filed another suit, this one in the Superior Court of the State of California.  The charge this time?  That the law was too vague.  It was déjà vu all over again!  Again, the court ultimately ruled against ACEF, declaring in their 2013 findings that “The fact that the statute defines confinement limitations in terms of animal behaviors rather than in square inches or other precise measurements does not render the statute facially vague.”

At the conclusion of the trial, Jonathan R. Lovvorn of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) noted that the opponents of Prop 2 had been allowed their day in court not once but three times and had not prevailed.  “Now…it’s time to get on with the process of transitioning egg operations to meet the needs of animals and the will of California voters,” he suggested.  “We sincerely hope the Court’s ruling will put this objection [of vagueness] to rest once and for all.”

It did seem like it was time to get on with it.  The inauguration date for the new law was now less than two years away, and many in the egg industry had spent a lot of time fighting it, but next to no time preparing for its institution. 

Through the whole battle leading up to the vote for Prop 2 in California, and in the years after it passed, HSUS had tirelessly campaigned, raised funds, and had successfully defended it three times in court.  And simultaneous to the fight in California, HSUS was pursuing a similar course to free chickens from cages in other states.  The biggest adversary HSUS faced in most of these battles was the United Egg Producers (UEP), the country’s largest egg production group. UEP represents egg farmers that raise over 90% of all the egg-laying hens in the United States.

So, as you can imagine, everyone on both sides of the issue was shocked when HSUS and UEP joined forces in 2011 to pursue federal legislation that would standardize cage sizes for laying hens, mandate egg carton labeling to tell the buyer about the environmental conditions in which the eggs in that carton were produced, and regulate other practices used in chicken keeping.

No doubt the reason UEP came to the table was the fact that there was continually increasing public pressure to liberate caged hens, the public pressure was manifesting itself in legislation in California and other states, the cost of the PR fight and litigation against the legislation was rising, and UEP was continuing to lose ground.

HSUS undoubtedly joined forces with UEP because it saw an opportunity to improve lives for chickens throughout the entire country in one fell swoop with federal legislation.

The bill, simply called “The Egg Bill” was put before the 2012 Congress.  It had a late start and it didn’t gain much traction, but HSUS and UEP were back in 2013 with legislation that they hoped would be added as an amendment to that year’s farm bill.  Among other things the bill proposed that battery cages be phased out over a twenty-year period and mandated that all egg cartons contain labeling that would inform consumers about the treatment and housing of the hens that produced the eggs. 

A collaboration between opponents means compromise, and compromise, of course, means concessions from both sides.  Many felt that HSUS gave up too much.  Perhaps the worst part of the bill in terms of chicken welfare was that it allowed “enhanced” cages.”  As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, “enhanced” cages are still cages.  As author, Clare Druce, points out, “Basically it’s still a battery cage, the birds living behind bars on metal grid flooring, the cages stacked up in tiers, many thousands of hens to a building.”  While nest boxes are included in these cages, Clare Druce explains that “It is simply a curtained area, behind which the hen finds the same sloping cage floor, the metal grid now covered in matting of some kind. Not a wisp of straw, no soft material with which to arrange her nest. Some of the enriched colony cages I saw held up to 60 hens. Gleaming metal cages stretched away into the distance, and there was that familiar unending clamor of frustrated hens’ voices.”  And as is the case with battery cages, the enhanced cages are over-packed with hens.  The legislation recognized that brown hens were larger than white hens, thus brown hens were allowed 144 square inches but white hens were only given 124 square inches.  Most experts agree that a hen needs at least 216 square inches for minimal normal behavior. 

While some in the animal welfare community supported HSUS in this endeavor, many others, including PETA, the Humane Farming Association, Friends of Animals, and United Poultry Concerns opposed it and referred to the legislation as “The Screaming Hen Bill” and “The Rotten Egg Bill.”

While HSUS and UEP, the proponents of the legislation, were indeed strange bedfellows, those who jumped into the opposition bed were equally mismatched.  The animal welfare groups were joined in opposition by organizations like the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council.  These groups representing animal farmers were all alarmed at the prospect that a federal law governing the treatment of chickens would segue into laws regulating the treatment of all farm animals. The pork producers issued a statement that they were “gravely concerned” that such legislation would “take away producers’ freedom to operate in a way that’s best for their animals.”  In their contorted logic, the best thing for their animals was not to have any laws that would guarantee their humane treatment. 

Due to the effort of the beef and pork lobbyists, a number of farm state Senators said they would work to bring the entire Farm Bill down if the Egg Bill amendment was part of it. In order to expedite the passage of the Farm Bill, Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the primary author of the Egg Bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) grudgingly allowed the Farm Bill to go forward without the Egg Bill.  In a bit of eleventh hour drama, when the Farm Bill was headed to the floor in the House, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Rep. Denham (R-CA) proposed adding the egg amendment to it, and it quite likely would have passed, but the House Rules Committee denied them the opportunity.  So the Farm Bill was passed by both houses of Congress without any provisions for hen welfare and it ultimately was signed into law in that form by President Obama in February of 2014.  And since the UEP and the HSUS didn’t extend their memorandum of understanding, the prospect of passing any national legislation even in this diluted form  that would protect laying hens from living out their lives in cruel cages was dead in the water.

Next time:  The California Department of Food and Agriculture muddies the waters, a bunch of egg-producing states bring suit, and Prop 2 finally (gasp!) becomes law!

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs Part 4—California, and now Massachusetts!"

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