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Tossed Out

Reintroduced egg bill meets some opposition

A proposed bill would change the way large egg-producing operations, like the one seen in this Stuart, Iowa, file photo, house hens. (File: Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)
A proposed bill would change the way large egg-producing operations, like the one seen in this Stuart, Iowa, file photo, house hens. (File: Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein reintroduced legislation Friday that would require a transition from conventional cages to so-called enriched colony cages for the country’s 280 million laying hens.

The Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers have received much attention for their joint support of the bill, a landmark in the usually contentious relationship between animal welfare groups and farm groups. But industry support is far from unanimous.

“Not all egg farmers want this legislation,” said Ken Klippen, spokesman for Egg Farmers of America.

Opponents of the legislation founded Egg Farmers of America, Klippen said, because they “were very concerned about having the government actually come in and take away their ability to produce eggs the way they have for many, many years.”

Klippen also said the group looked at the implementation of enriched colony cages — the bigger systems with perches and nesting areas required by the proposed law — in Germany in 2010.

“The result was that they had foreclosures on farms and they had shortages of eggs,” Klippen said. “They had to import eggs from other countries.”

When the new systems were implemented across the European Union two years later, he said, prices spiked. But Klippen said opponents, in his group and from other sectors of animal agriculture, also view this bill as just a beginning.

“They see this as a stepping stone to expand the dominance that the animal activists have over animal agriculture now,” Klippen said. “They’re trying to gain that dominance and they’re going to continue.”

Klippen has had some experience with those animal welfare groups. He was spokesman for Sparboe Farms when that company was the subject of animal rights activists’ undercover video footage. Klippen is also a past vice president of United Egg Producers. He said the farmers he now represents won’t speak directly to the media because they fear the animal welfare groups will target them.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t just vocalize our opposition without fear of retribution,” he said.

This is familiar ground for the industry groups and the Humane Society. But Chad Gregory, current president of the United Egg Producers, said he’s confident these kinds of collaborations are the way forward for the egg industry.

“This is what my industry and my egg farmers want and passionately believe that they need to [have] happen so that they can pass their farms on to the next generation,” Gregory told me when we spoke for a story I wrote two weeks ago. “Housing will improve drastically, the environment will improve drastically and the safety of our product will improve drastically over the next 15 years if we can get this bill passed.”

Feinstein’s bill, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2013, could get folded into the 2013 Farm Bill. And we’ll continue to watch it, especially to see if it becomes a model for animal welfare-agriculture cooperation.