The Humane Society and the United Egg Producers do not usually see eye to eye. The Humane Society of the United States is one of the largest animal welfare groups in the country. The United Egg Producers (UEP) represent the interests of 80% of the egg producing farms in America. The two are the Batman and the Joker, the North and South Korea, the Hasselbeck and O'Donnell of the egg industry. As Paul Shapiro, the Senior Director of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society put it, "These are two groups that have been political adversaries for many years; they have been essentially at war." If they had announced that they were agreeing on the best shape of pasta, it would have been news.
But today, they announced that they have agreed to support a sweeping new set of regulations for the egg industry--which will be the first federal regulations of any kind for the treatment of farmed animals and the first federal legislation on animal cruelty in 30 years. That isn't big--that's colossal.
The regulations, if they are approved in Congress, will ban the use of "battery cages" in the raising of egg-laying hens. At any given moment, 250 million hens live in battery cages, which are tiny and overcrowded. Most cram four chickens in an 18"x20" cage. (Though 50 million hens, outside the purview of the UEP, live an average of 7.5 chickens to a cage.) The hens don't have room enough to move; all they can do is eat, lay eggs, sleep and defecate.
The new regulations will gradually replace battery cages with "enriched colony cages" in the 18 years after passage. The new habitats will give each chicken twice as much floor space, with structures for nesting, scratching, and perching.
Bruce Friedrich, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives at the animal rights group Farm Sanctuary, said to the Huffington Post, "Is that great? No. But it's a lot better than cramming five of these animals into a battery cage. It will provide a significantly better life for hundreds of millions of animals."
The new regulations will also ban a practice by which chickens are denied food--starved--for two weeks to induce a new cycle of egg laying.
These are major changes. Mitch Head, a spokesman from the UEP, said that the new regulations will cost egg farmers $4 billion to implement. But Shapiro explained that the UEP approached the Humane Society for the talks that led to the agreement voluntarily. Why?
"We know that the enriched cages seem to have a lot of advantages over traditional cage systems, and they also have some advantages over cage free," Head told the Huffington Post. "There's also the fact that a single national standard is preferable to a patchwork of state regulations--for our producers, our customers and for consumers."
Head and Shapiro explained that the UEP couldn't unilaterally call for higher standards of treatment because it lacks ultimate authority over farmers' practices. Though 80% of egg farmers are members of the UEP, their participation is voluntary. Strict regulations could push some of these farmers away from the group, and possibly towards even worse practices.
"If you just made the new cages voluntarily, you might only have 10 or 15% of the industry that would participate," Head said.
Shapiro said he thought the decision was largely strategic. A ballot initiative banning the use of battery cages passed resoundingly in California, and similar initiatives looked promising in Washington and Oregon.
From here, the regulations still have to make it through Congress, which Head said he thought would likely take at least a year. But Shapiro said he was optimistic about the chances of passage.
"This is a recommendation from both the egg industry and the animal welfare movement," he said. "We're going to work hard, and the UEP is going to work hard, to make sure this passes."
Because the regulations will be the first to monitor the treatment of animals in farms, animal rights advocates are hopeful about the prospect that Congress will move to regulate the treatment of other livestock. Chickens being raised for meat, for example, are not covered under the new regulations; neither are pigs or cows.
"97% of the American people believe that cruelty to animals should be illegal," Friedrich said, "But what happens on modern farms is completely unregulated."
If Congress acts on the advice of the UEP and the Humane Society, though, that won't be true for long.
Read Bruce Friedrich's full thoughts on the announcement on Huffington Post Green.