Make egg production more humane

In the United States there are 280 million egg-laying hens producing more than 80 billion table eggs annually. Eggs are a national commodity. For economic and regulatory security, our egg farmers need one national standard to bring order to the patchwork of state laws currently providing uneven rules for farmers producing this national commodity.

Many states have approved conflicting standards for egg production, often applying those standards to all eggs sold in the states including those produced out of state. This regime is making interstate commerce in eggs increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The prospect of needing to have different production systems for shipping to different states undermines the whole concept of a national egg market and has the very real potential to create major market disruptions and increase costs substantially.

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To address this problem, and in an effort to establish a national standard, the United Egg Producers (UEP), representing nearly 90 percent of egg farmers in the United States, and the Humane Society of the United States reached a historic agreement last summer to phase in the use of enriched cages for egg production over the next 15 to 18 years.

These larger cages provide more space per hen and permit them to more freely engage in normal behaviors like wing-stretching, perching and scratching. Studies show that enriched colony cages can be better for production than conventional cages, as the hens have lower mortality and higher productivity, making them more economically efficient for egg producers.

This agreement allows farmers time to make investments in better housing, with the assurance that all egg farmers will face the same requirements by the end of the phase-in period. The egg industry would be responsible for financing the investments in new housing structures for its egg-laying hens — creating jobs and new construction in rural communities — and, for many facilities, the transition can be accomplished during the normal course of replacing aged equipment.

It’s important to note that eggs have always been regulated differently from other animal agriculture industries. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration enforces on-farm food safety regulations for eggs, but not for other livestock sectors. For decades, the meat and poultry industries have insisted on strict preemption of state laws under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and other laws such as the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The egg industry should have the same right to uniform federal standards as other agriculture sectors.

In today’s political climate, it’s not often we have two opposing sides of an issue come together, work to find common ground, develop a solution to which both can agree and bring a legislative proposal to Congress and say, “Please help us.” When this rare occurrence happens, I believe Congress has a duty to act. This is precisely why I introduced H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments.

H.R. 3798 is a bipartisan bill that will codify the UEP/Human Society agreement and represents a new way forward, demonstrating that two sides that used to be adversaries can come together and find solutions that balance animal welfare, sound science and the economic realities of an industry that is producing an affordable food supply for our constituents.

Opponents of this legislation continue to ignore the very real and potentially devastating economic realities facing the egg industry. We cannot ignore those realities. Gene Gregory, president and CEO of UEP, sums up the situation quite succinctly, saying, “We need this legislation for our customers and consumers and the survival of egg farmers.”

Customer expectations and consumer demands are changing, and the United Egg Producers have stepped up to the plate and shown that American agriculture can be part of the solution and not the problem. Doing what is good for animal welfare and what is good for industry doesn’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. H.R. 3798 shares the support of the egg producers, veterinarians, consumer groups and animal protection groups as well as the endorsement of newspapers across the country.

As the only veterinarian currently serving in Congress, I think I have a unique perspective on issues involving animal welfare and agriculture and a responsibility to provide a rational voice on these issues that are all too often polarizing and costly. In a time where compromise and agreement is in short supply, we should be embracing and rewarding this kind of cooperation. Producers want it, consumers want it and animal welfare advocates want it. This is a no-brainer — Congress should pass H.R. 3798.

Schrader is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.