Federal legislation establishing reasonable standards for layer hen cages will not only protect hens, but also prevent states from taking the national egg industry into their own hands. Ohio, Michigan, and California have already enacted various bans and moratoria on the construction or continued use of battery cages. In 2010, California also enacted A.B. 1437, which requires all eggs sold in the state to have been produced in a manner compliant with California’s hen housing requirements, regardless of where the eggs originated. But under the 112th Congress, the farm bill was amended such that it bans states from regulating the production of eggs in other states. If this amendment remains in the 2013 version of the farm bill and ultimately becomes law, it will nullify A.B. 1437 and egg production in California will eventually be replaced with inhumane egg production elsewhere. Without federal legislation that both activists and the egg industry agree upon, inefficient lobbying battles over state legislation will continue, generating a soup of conflicting regulations for a national industry.

Congress must also encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promulgate better regulations for alternatives to cage-based farming systems, such as free-range. With better regulations, the alternative labels will gain integrity, and thereby the potential for greater consumer support. The only existing well-regulated farming system that sometimes does give hens significant freedom is organic farming. Organic farms allow hens access to the outdoors, do not administer drugs, and only provide organically raised feed. Organic eggs can cost two to three times as much as conventional eggs, primarily due to the feed, and their cost is prohibitive for most interested consumers. The institution of free-range farming, however, has potential as a financially practical, humane compromise. The free-range label is used loosely today, but aims to describe farms that allow hens ample access to the outdoors in reasonable stocking densities (1 square meter per hen), while also allowing the use of drugs and any kind of feed. Research on free-range farms is sparse (largely because the term is so inconsistently defined), but estimates of their operating costs range from only 25 percent-50 percent greater than those of cage systems. These operating costs would likely fall even lower if free-range operations grew in size in response to a rise in demand. And that demand might indeed rise if the free-range operations were well-regulated enough for consumers to feel comfortable spending a little more to support them.

In light of the many grave problems facing our nation, legislation on a mundane subject like factory farming might sound too trivial to even acknowledge. But unlike most other pressing issues, the arguments and facts on all sides of the layer hen farming debate are relatively clear and certain. Federal legislation on hen welfare is in everyone’s best interest, and improved regulation of alternative farming systems will merely protect both consumers and farmers from misleading, dishonest marketing, and allow both parties more freedom of choice. The solutions are indisputable. All this industry needs is a little bit of legislative action.

Rustagi has been a resident of Maryland for over 20 years, and recently graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering.