Will Congress scramble the egg market?

Essentially, it’s putting PETA in charge of farms. That’s about as wise as hiring a Yankees fan as a Red Sox manager.
 

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At face value, the bill doesn’t seem too bad: It mandates larger cages for egg-laying hens. But experience abroad shows that government mandates can spell bad news.
 
On January 1, new European Union regulations took effect regulating how hens can be housed. By early March, newspapers reported price spikes and egg shortages in several countries.

In Britain, supermarkets feared shortages of products using eggs, such as cakes. France saw a 10-percent supply shortfall. Consumer prices reportedly increased 40 to 60 percent.

The Farm Bill amendment would give U.S. farms 15-18 years to comply compared to 12 in Europe, but California famers will be asked to make the switch in just a few years—by 2015—due to a ballot initiative that passed in 2008. That’s asking a lot in a short period of time of farmers who produce 5 billion eggs.
 
One major hurdle is financial. The U.S. bill is expected to cost farmers $6-10 billion. In this economic day and age, where’s the credit going to come from?
 
As with any regulation that imposes burdens on business, the costs will be passed on to consumers. In 2009, well before this year’s egg-market anarchy, most Europeans paid 71 percent more than Americans did for a dozen eggs. In some countries, the price even approached $6 a dozen.
 
U.S. prices will shift in this direction if the Farm Bill amendment passes. That will lead to fewer people buying eggs, and will put pressure on the market to outsource production to countries like Mexico, which are outside the purview of U.S. animal-welfare regulations.
 
There’s one group that stands to gain: Animal rights activists. A number of animal rights groups, from the Humane Society of the U.S. to Farm Sanctuary, have lined up behind the Farm Bill amendment.
 
It’s not because they’re fans of the egg industry. Quite the opposite. In 2006, HSUS’s vice president for farm animal issues stated her group wants to “get rid of the entire industry” and that “we don’t want any of these animals to be raised and killed.” HSUS’s food policy director is a former PETA activist, and the group is run by vegans who don’t believe in eating eggs.
 
This amendment is simply a stepping stone for them. Farm Sanctuary recently told the media about the bill’s requirements, “Is that good conditions? No, it's not.” The next step will be for animal rights activists to push for “cage-free” to be the minimum standard.
 
But even that won’t be enough. “If anyone says ‘cage-free’ is 100 percent humane, 100 percent cruelty-free, that’s not accurate,” said an HSUS farm-animal campaigner in 2009. There is no way for the egg industry—or egg-eating consumers—to ever satisfy animal rights activists.
 
So why does the vegan lobby have the support of an egg trade group for this federal mandate? They have successfully misled consumers through emotionally manipulative ballot campaigns and bullied egg farms into submission. HSUS raises money off of pictures of abandoned and abused dogs and cats, and then uses the massive war chest to attack meat, dairy, and eggs. Only 1 percent of the money HSUS raises is sent to pet shelters, according to its tax return.
 
Essentially, the egg industry is held hostage. The goals of the federal bill aren’t bad, mind you. The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that moving from current conventional cages to enriched cages is a net welfare gain. Additionally, the egg industry believes it will increase production. But the means to the end are rotten.
 
If the incentives are there, the industry can make the transition on its own, without the need for federal rules. Changes on the farm should come from consumer demand, not mandates from anti-egg groups. If shoppers demand free-range, cage-free, or enriched-cage eggs, farmers will happily supply them.
 
Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

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