Consumer egg prices could double in many states if an amendment to the Egg Products Inspection Act isn't passed by Congress, egg farmers testified in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. 45,000 egg-industry jobs in 24 states could soon be at risk they said if this legislation isn't passed, allowing dozens of contradictory and unworkable state laws proscribing farm egg production standards to spring up instead.
Without legislation (S.3239), many states could soon mandate laws that are "inconsistent, contradictory and ultimately unworkable," said egg farmer Greg Herbruck from Michigan. Five states already have such contradictory laws which can cause confusion for consumers, retailers and farmers. Other states could require farmers to only produce cage-free eggs, he said. Retail prices for cage-free eggs are double what regular eggs are, according to U.S.D.A. reports ($2.58 vs $1.28 per dozen) and only 5 percent of consumers buy them, according to United Egg Producers (UEP), a national trade association that represents egg farmers who produce nearly 90 percent of eggs in the U.S. Such laws could jeopardize the entire U.S. egg industry, estimated to account for $6 billion in annual farm-level sales and 97,000 U.S. jobs.
David Lathem, a second-generation egg farmer from Georgia and chairman of UEP said, "The long-term viability of my family farm is in jeopardy without this legislation." He cited an Agralytica study that showed that the legislation would add less than two cents to the cost of a dozen eggs spread out over an 18-year period.
Eric Benson, an egg farmer from California, testified that a single, national standard was preferable to a patchwork quilt of competing state laws. The legislation (S.3239) provides egg-laying hens almost twice the space they currently have, plus provides a nesting area, perches and other enrichments. "This system has higher production efficiency and better animal welfare as measured by animal mortality," he said.
The legislation is supported by UEP, which represents farmers who produce nearly 90 percent of U.S. eggs; hundreds of family farmers; most of the national animal welfare groups such as Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; major consumer groups like Consumer Federation of America and National Consumers League; scientific groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of Avian Veterinarians; and dozens of newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, Des Moines Register, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dianne Feinstein D-Calif. with Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Scott Brown, R-Mass., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., David Vitter, R-La. and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. as original co-sponsors and 16 overall co-sponsors in the Senate. A companion bill H.R. 3798 was introduced in January by Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif. The House bill has 113 overall co-sponsors.
The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 would:
- require conventional cages to be replaced during an ample phase-in period with new, enriched colony housing systems that provide each egg-laying hen nearly double the amount of current space;
- require that, after a phase-in period, all egg-laying hens be provided with environmental enrichments, such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas, that will allow hens to express natural behaviors;
- require labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs: "eggs from caged hens," "eggs from hens in enriched cages," "eggs from cage-free hens" and "eggs from free-range hens";
- prohibit feed- or water-withdrawal molting to extend the laying cycle, a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program;
- require standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia of egg-laying hens;
- prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses; and
- prohibit the transport and sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don't meet these requirements.
If enacted, the proposal would require egg producers to increase space per hen in a tiered phase-in, with the amount of space hens are given increasing, in intervals, over the next 15 to 18 years. (Phase-in schedules are more rapid in California, consistent with a ballot initiative approved earlier by that state's voters.) Currently, the majority of hens are each provided 67 square inches of space, with up to 50 million receiving just 48 square inches. The proposed phase-in would culminate with a minimum of 124 square inches of space for white hens and 144 for brown hens nationwide.