Egg bill scrambles support for farm bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies at a hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee in May 2011. (USDAGov/Flickr)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies at a hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee in May 2011. (USDAGov/Flickr)

Forget whether the chicken or the egg came first. Many people in animal production agriculture fear that it’s the chickens and the eggs that are coming first… and next will be swine or cattle or sheep.

Industry groups including the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, National Milk Producer Federation and American Sheep Industry are worried that if an agreement between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States gets passed into law, the animal welfare movement will push next into their industries.

Some of their supporters, including Sen. Mike Johanns, Republican of Nebraska and a Senate Agriculture Committee member, say they will oppose a 2013 farm bill if the Egg Products Inspection Act, informally known as the Egg Bill, is included. That’s a big blow for legislation that was hailed in some corners as a significant step in relations between animal welfare advocates and agriculture interests. 

The Senate and House Agriculture Committees are both scheduled to mark up their farm bill proposals next week. A five-year bill carries a likely price tag in the vicinity of a trillion dollars and includes programs as diverse as help for beginning farmers and ranchers, research on biofuels and horticulture, conservation and, of course, nutrition programs and crop insurance. In short, something for just about every constituent group.

So could disagreement over something as seemingly simple as expanding cages for laying hens and labeling egg cartons scuttle the whole thing? Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley serves on the Agriculture Committee with Johanns and says the threat to the farm bill is real.

“I think it could jeopardize it,” Grassley said.

Opponents are not complaining about the specifics of hen cages. Rather, they object to what they see as a regulatory precedent that could lead to laws governing how they raise their animals. 

“It might encourage things to go further in all livestock agriculture,” Grassley said. “In fact, sometimes you get the feeling that some of the people promoting these ideas are against all animal agriculture.”

Dale Moore, executive director for public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his group would also oppose a farm bill containing the egg provision. That’s important because the Farm Bureau is one of agriculture’s biggest players. Moore says passage would empower the Humane Society.

“Once they get a federal law established on hens, then they have established that the federal government has jurisdiction on farms and ranches,” he said.

Next, Moore predicts, they’ll take that success into the court system.

“They are well-funded and I think as an organization they probably have more lawyers per capita than just about any organizations engaged in this discussion,” Moore said. He added that when the egg industry briefed other groups on the agreement with HSUS, the egg producers acknowledged that they needed a way out of the millions of dollars a year they were spending to fight HSUS-sponsored ballot initiatives in state after state.

What’s more, Grassley says this “slippery slope” toward outside regulations dictating on-farm animal welfare practices ignores farmers’ and ranchers’ commitment to their animals’ wellbeing.

“Any farmer that’s not concerned about the welfare of animals isn’t looking at his own pocketbook,” Grassley said, “because if the animals aren’t doing well you aren’t going to make any money.”

And Grassley, who represents the number one egg-producing state in the country, pointed out that support for the egg bill is not unanimous among egg producers. The new cage systems it would mandate would require a significant investment.

“I also got a concern from the smaller egg producers in Iowa that feel it’s going to drive them out of business,” Grassley said.

While the official battle is over animal welfare and regulatory precedent, it’s obvious that at the center of all the animal ag producer groups’ positions on the egg bill is the bottom dollar. And that’s a fight plenty familiar in Washington, and one that is also at the core of the overall farm bill debate.

More: Cagey issues for the egg industry