Sunny side up legislation

Feinstein’s amendment simply requires that egg laying hens have enough space to perch, nest, flap their wings, and express other natural behaviors. It bans “molting”—starving hens to induce growth—and sets ammonia standards in henhouses to protect animals and farmworkers. It introduces clear production-method labels, so consumers know what they’re buying. And it gives farmers 15-18 years to adapt their cages, plus a uniform national standard so they can invest in new henhouses.

The amendment is the result of an unlikely compromise between the long-feuding United Egg Producers—which represents famers who produce more than 90 percent of American eggs—and the Humane Society of the United States. For years, the Humane Society fought the egg producers as it passed stronger animal welfare standards in California, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington. But in 2011, the Humane Society and the egg producers did the unthinkable—they sat down to negotiate.

Neither side got what it wanted. The Humane Society wanted to scrap cages entirely; the egg producers wanted to keep using barren battery cages. But both sides realized they could achieve more together.

The amendment follows a well-tested model. In 1965, the automobile industry supported the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Act to establish uniform car emission standards, after environmentalists passed more stringent standards in California. Two years later, the soft coal industry lobbied for the Air Quality Act to stave off inconsistent state standards.

These compromises succeeded because they offered something to both sides: cleaner air for environmentalists, and consistency and clarity for industry. Similarly, the egg amendment promises more humane conditions for animals and a clear standard for egg farmers, who need certainty to invest in new hen housing that has a useful life of 25-30 years. It also meets consumer expectations—a poll found that consumers back the legislation by a margin of four-to-one.

But the amendment is threatened by an odd cabal of animal rights purists and meat industry lobbyists. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) included the amendment's language in her draft of the Farm Bill, but withdrew it following heavy lobbying from the pork and beef industries. The amendment explicitly excludes these industries, but they apparently fear the precedent of even moderate animal welfare reforms.

It’s time for Congress to stand up to these lobbies and back the amendment. It would merely align America’s production standards with its closest trading partners: the European Union, Israel, and India are all phasing out battery cages on the recommendation of scientific veterinary committees.

The amendment would also bring federal law up to speed with corporate America. Major food chains including Burger King, Unilever, and Subway have already committed to not buying eggs from barren battery cages. Walmart, Costco, and dozens of other corporations have started phasing out battery cage eggs.

Passing the amendment would give the egg industry the certainty it needs to invest and create jobs. It would ensure more humane conditions for the nation’s 280 million egg layer hens. And it would send a message to all extremists: Congress is still open to bipartisan compromises.

Lewis Bollard is a recent graduate of Yale Law School.