Is the Egg Bill All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Animal welfare groups have documented the conditions under which most commercial egg production organizations house their laying hens. Most commercial producers use “battery cages,” in which six to eight hens are confined together in a small space, without enough room to lie down, stand up, turn around or extend their wings and without any private space to lay their eggs. Being confined with other hens in the cramped area of a battery cage increases stress and fear. The hens’ beaks are partially removed to prevent injuries.  Because some diseases spread rapidly when chickens are crowded together in cages, it is common practice to add antibiotics to their feed. Producers also may withdraw food or water to suspend the hens’ laying season, a process called “forced molting,” which temporarily boosts production when feeding resumes.

For several years, animal welfare organizations have worked to persuade corporations and institutions that buy eggs to reject eggs produced in battery cages and insist on cage-free or free range production. In 2008, California voters enacted Proposition 2, which will require all egg producers in the state to provide their hens with adequate space to move, lie down, and spread their wings, in 2015. Although backers of the legislation stated that Prop. 2 would require California eggs to be cage free, some farmers contended that the law required only that laying hens have cages large enough to meet the space requirements. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was a key proponent of Proposition 2 and cage-free egg production. It  spent more on the campaign than any other contributor. In 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring out-of-state producers to meet California’s requirements in order to sell their eggs in California.

The Egg Products Inspection Legislation

In 2012, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Egg Products Inspection Amendments Act of 2012 (S3239– 112th), which would have required egg producers that use cages to move to an “enriched colony” system. In enriched colonies,  each hen has enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around, and spread her wings,  and is free to express instinctive behavior such as dust bathing and scratching. The space required for each hen in a cage would increase incrementally over 15 to 18 years. The bill also would have limited the permissible level of ammonia in the atmosphere to 25 parts per million, barred forced molting, and required labeling of the cartons to indicate compliance with the housing requirements. The HSUS apparently retreated from its insistence on cage-free production, as Senator Feinstein’s bill incorporated standards  agreed upon by the HSUS and the United Egg Producers. Equipment installed between 2008 and the end of 2011, hens in production on the date of enactment, and producers with fewer than 3,000 hens would  be exempt from the requirement.Conversion to enriched cages was to be phased in.  If enacted, the bill would preempt more stringent state laws.

After failing in 2012, the bill was reintroduced in 2013 as  S820  in the Senate and HB1731 in the House. The 2013 version deleted a requirement that the Secretary propose implementing regulations by January 2017 and  publish a final rule by the end of December 2018. It added a provision allowing egg producers to exceed the ammonia limits temporarily “as necessary because of extraordinary weather circumstances or other unusual circumstances.” The 2013 bill exempted educational and research institutions that produce and sell eggs from the provisions related to housing, treatment, or housing-related labeling. Finally, the 2013 bill eliminated the requirement for “environmental enrichment” in cages occupied by a single egg-laying hen. In other words, it appears that the bill would not require caged hens  to have a space to perch, scratch, dust-bathe, or nest unless they share the cage.

The preemption provision remains in the 2013 bill. The weakened standards for animal welfare would become a ceiling to prevent states from requiring even the protections of the 2012 bill.