Another Chicken Activist’s Perspective on Federal Legal Protection for Hens
by Paul Shapiro
Senior director of farm animal protection, Humane Society of the U.S.
In 1999, United Poultry Concerns rightly lauded the passage of the European Union’s law requiring a phase-in of better treatment of egg-laying hens by 2012, including a switch from barren battery cages to enriched colony cages.
“Europe Bans Battery Hen Cages” was the UPC newsletter’s headline, with the article continuing that caging systems will be improved by reducing stocking density, but that cage-free would have been better. “Historic Day for Hens,” continued another UPC headline about the EU announcement. The article asserted, “It is time for the United States and Canada to climb aboard,” adding “The vote is a victory for the birds and for our struggle on their behalf in a country that, to date, accords to birds and to farmed animals no federal protection at all.”
Fortunately, the United States is now closer to affording these long-suffering birds more federal protection than the European law that UPC lauded, but not if the beef and pork industries get their way and kill HR 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act of 2012.
HR 3798 would help hens in a number of ways, including: essentially doubling the amount of space each laying hen has (with more space than the EU standard that UPC lauded); requiring that battery egg producers label their cartons as “eggs from caged hens”; banning forced starvation molting, which is still practiced by some egg producers; and requiring perches and nesting areas so that birds can get off of wire flooring and engage in more natural behavior.
Groups like Compassion in World Farming that worked to enact the EU law in 1999-and are striving for cage-free conditions-are also enthusiastic supporters of the proposed U.S. hen law. CIWF notes that the bill is “historic” and a “significant step in the right direction.”
The overwhelming opposition to H.R. 3798 comes from the beef and pork industries, which are desperately trying to kill the bill because they see it as “unconscionable federal overreach.” Their main opposition to the bill stems from their belief that the federal government should not be in the business of passing laws to protect farm animals. They apparently don’t realize that train has left the station, and they conveniently ignore current federal laws relating to transport and slaughter of certain farm animals–though not chickens–including the 28 Hour Law of 1873 and the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958.
It is not just the beef and pork industries that oppose H.R. 3798. The groups that signed on in opposition to H.R. 3798 comprise a veritable “who’s who” of industry groups that oppose farm animal protection, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Turkey Federation, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry Association.
Animal People readers know that United Poultry Concerns also opposes the bill, despite the group’s support for the less comprehensive EU law. Even many years after the EU law was enacted, UPC stated that the organization “applauded the banning of battery-hen cages in the European Union.”
The Humane Farming Association and Friends of Animals are two other groups that oppose the bill. HFA claims to be concerned about the fate of California’s Proposition Two ballot measure, approved by voters in 2008, because of HR 3798 would entail federal preemption, but HFA never supported Proposition Two. Friends of Animals actively opposed it.
The animal protection organizations most actively involved in legislative efforts on behalf of laying hens enthusiastically support HR 3798, including all of the groups that funded the Proposition Two campaign. Not only do we know that the big egg production states like Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Indiana and others don’t allow ballot measures–and therefore don’t offer much of a pathway to gain legislative improvements for these birds–but there is a serious legal dispute about how Proposition Two will be interpreted in California with very unclear outcomes regarding how it will be resolved.
Many in the California egg industry have been arguing that they want the Proposition Two space standards to be defined as only 93 un-enriched square inches per bird. That is far less space (not to mention the lack of enrichments) than the standards H.R. 3798 would set, which are 124 to 144 square inches per bird, depending on the size of the bird breed. Some state agricultural officials and animal scientists are making the same arguments, meaning there is a real question as to how Proposition Two will be defined if HR 3798 isn’t enacted.
Unlike Proposition Two, HR 3798 includes environmental enrichment requirements, egg carton labeling requirements, air quality and molting requirements, and more. No matter who wins the legal disputes in California, none of these important provisions will take effect in California or anywhere else if HR 3798 fails. And importantly, given that there is little pathway to securing positive change in the biggest egg production states, having the opportunity to affect the 280 million hens in all 50 states is a unique opportunity.
What are the alternatives?
Those in the animal protection movement who oppose HR 3798 don’t offer an alternative plan for the hundreds of millions of animals this would help. They are not suggesting another legislative way forward for hens, or showing how this bill is worse than having no law at all.
Simply put, no realistic alternatives are offered because none of us are aware of any. The 280 million hens in our country aren’t just a statistic. These are real animals who endure real suffering, and we have a chance to help alleviate some of their misery with this bill. Without it, they will be significantly worse off.
While UPC does not offer any potential legislative pathways to help all hens in the egg industry, UPC founder Karen Davis’ March 2012 ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column suggested that people should simply stop eating animal products. Of course you can do that and support this legislation; being vegan does not preclude also reducing the suffering of the billions of animals (over several years) who will be helped by this bill. As a vegan myself for the last 18 years, I am heartened to see the animal movement focusing more on ethical eating options. At the same time, I am heartened that our movement is making so many strides to gain farm animals more legal protection from the worst cruelties, and I would value both approaches if I were a battery hen.
The path forward
Groups like the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American SPCA, and Compassion Over Killing have been waging legislative campaigns to help farm animals on a state by state basis. Now we are in our best position ever to gain federal protection for hundreds of millions of animals every year. This will significantly improve their lives compared to what they are today, and compared to what their prospects will be without HR 3798.
In the words of those who lauded the 1999 EU campaign, this is truly an historic effort, and one that animal advocates should not pass up. It will be very hard to defeat the agribusiness interests lined up against this federal bill, but considering the stakes at hand, we must take on this fight and mobilize our supporters to pass this critical legislation in Congress.