Competing egg lobbies scramble over measure requiring larger cages for hens

The egg industry is embroiled in tense infighting ahead of a contentious hearing next week on a bill that would require farmers to use larger cages for egg-laying hens.

The fight pits the large United Egg Producers (UEP) against the much smaller and newer Egg Farmers of America.

Egg Farmers says the bill will impose unsustainable costs on farmers who will have to toss their existing battery cages. UEP supports the bill, which it says would preempt competing state standards and has a long phase in period.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Senate Agriculture Committee is set to hold a hearing on the bill, which eventually could find its way into the 2012 farm bill, on Thursday.

The legislation would phase in over 18 years the use of cages that are large enough for hens to turn completely around in, and would abolish competing state standards that would go into effect sooner.

Three farmers representing UEP and one Egg Farmer of America member will testify at the hearing.

Charges and counter-charges between the groups are intense.

UEP’s spokesman says Egg Farmers is a “deceptive” splinter group and that the majority of egg farmers support the legislation.

UEP says its board cut a deal with the Humane Society to back the bill in early 2011 and the board was been reelected in October—a sign that the deal is supported by its membership.

Bill supporters also accuse Egg Farmers of being a front group for the pork and beef lobbies, which fear that the egg bill will set a precedent for pigpens and stalls for cattle. 

Egg Farmers vigorously disputes the idea that they are fronting for other agricultural interests. They also argue that many egg producers do not support the legislation.

 “In fact not all of United Egg producers are united on this,” Tyson Redpath, a spokesman for the Egg Farmers of America told The Hill. He added: “We represent small and medium sized producers…we are not a front group for anybody.”

Redpath said the “broad membership” of UEP was never polled on the legislation, and that changing to larger cages would cost at least $4 billion. Those costs will be passed onto consumers, he warned.

UEP spokesman Mitch Head said that the cost will be smaller since the bill phases in new cages over nearly 20 years. He said the average consumer would see a 20 cent per year increase in the cost of eggs.

Head said that most farmers prefer a national standard to a patchwork of state standards that are developing.

“They are a small, splinter organization,” Head said of Egg Farmers, noting that UEP represents 90 percent of the industry by volume.  “I don’t know who is funding them. They are not transparent.”

The hearing has been spurred in part by an amendment Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) added to the farm bill during a late-night meeting.

King's amendment says states do not have the power to impose restrictions on agricultural products based on the means of production, if the products are made in other states according to the laws in force in those states. King says the provision is designed to apply broadly to state and local laws governing worker rights and environmental standards on products imported into the state.

The amendment was aimed at a California law that bans eggs from hens in tiny cages from being sold, even if the eggs come from outside the state. King says California is free to do what it wants, but it cannot under the Constitution tell small Midwestern farmers what to do.

UEP opposes the King amendment and says the effect will be to punish California farmers and farmers in five other states in the process of enacting similar laws. They are Michigan, Arizona, Washington state, Oregon, Arizona and Ohio.

“The amendment would allow farmers from other states to come in there and put them out of business,” Head said.

But King’s amendment is backed by Egg Farmers.

“The free market is already at work. You can already walk into any store and buy cage free, or organic eggs,” Redpath said.

King told The Hill Friday that UEP by backing the egg bill is essentially throwing small producers under the bus to help its bigger members. He said it “wants to feed the alligator so that it will be the last to be eaten.”

King added the egg bill is part of a Humane Society agenda to “keep meat off of our plates.”

He said the organization was trying to require cage-free egg production until it realized that was “ludicrous,” and now is trying to get its foot in the door with the egg bill.

“Their bill is not supported by sound science,” said King, who argued there is no evidence the hens are healthier in larger cages. He said he knows of no way to measure whether chickens are suffering.

King said that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) should drop any attempt to insert the egg bill into the farm bill in conference. He said the Senate had the chance to debate its inclusion and chose not to before the bill was passed in June by a 64 to 35 vote.

Sources said Stabenow had tried to include the egg bill as a floor amendment but had not been included in the final amendment agreement in the Senate.