Reporter's Notebook

Egg producers and animal rights activists declare peace

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This post is part of NRN's newsroom blog, Reporter's Notebook.

Leaders of the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers seemed genuinely shocked that they were speaking together at a press conference.

I wasn’t there in person, but I called in to the US Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., where the conference was being held to announce what was basically a peace accord between egg producers and animal rights activists.

And the speakers sounded positively giddy. I imagined them grinning as broadly as Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and even the famously wide-smiling Jimmy Carter as the three announced the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords that ended decades of conflict between Israel and Egypt.

“We’re here to announce what I think can only be characterized as an historic and unprecedented agreement,” said HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, who sounded to me like he couldn’t believe those words were coming out of his mouth.

Their agreement basically sets standards for the conditions under which egg-laying hens are to be raised in the United States.

That sounds pretty humdrum if you’re not directly involved in egg production. And even if you are, the UEP set voluntary protocols in 1998 that provide what they see as humane conditions for the chickens in their care.

But the HSUS didn’t see it that way, and for years now, since it took over the helm from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, as the nation’s preeminent animal rights group, it has been engaging in negative PR campaigns and working to pass laws, pressure restaurant companies and engage in clandestine investigations at farms to force egg producers to change their ways.

Every once in awhile I’d suggest to HSUS supporters that maybe the egg producers knew what they were doing — that in fact happy, healthy hens produce more eggs and are easier to care for and that the science-based UEP protocols might be good for the chickens. They’d brand me as ill-informed or a corporate tool, occasionally resorting to profanity in the process.

An HSUS representative laughed at me once.

I’d also suggest to egg producers that maybe the HSUS had its heart in the right place and was genuinely concerned for the hens’ welfare. They’d shudder and speak of the HSUS’s secret radical vegan agenda and their ultimate goal of doing away with all animal products.

But in the end the two sides came to an agreement: The egg producers will spend $4 billion, with a ‘b’, over the next 15-18 years to build bigger cages with perches and dust baths and other things that let the hens act like hens, and the animal rights activists will leave them alone. You can read about the details of the agreement here: http://bit.ly/qSKTYN.

After the announcement in Washington, the interested parties took questions and it became clear to me that many of the other journalists saw this as an out-and-out capitulation on the part of the egg producers.

That’s not the case.

In fact, the UEP has been pushing for enriched cages for some time, but it didn’t want its members to invest in them if they weren’t going to comply with the patchwork of regulations that were being passed across the country.

As part of the new peace treaty, both groups will work together to pass a federal law that will preempt all of the local regulations except for Proposition 2 in California, which voters passed in 2008 and which requires that egg-laying hens, gestating sows and veal calves have enough room to stand up, turn around, extend their limbs and lie down.

To the HSUS, that meant cage-free hens, until now. As part of the agreement, the animal rights group has conceded that enriched cages will work.

Of course that’s really up to the California Department of Agriculture, but it’s the HSUS that would likely have litigated against interpretations of the law with which it wouldn’t agree.

Now it agrees with the egg producers.

In case you’re wondering why egg producers are opposed to cage-free egg production, a UEP spokesman told me they don’t see the practice as being sustainable.

Looking after the chickens and tracking down the eggs they lay requires more labor, but also hens that run around require larger housing facilities and 15 percent more feed, which means more crop land to grow that feed.

Enriched cages provide for the hens’ emotional needs while still keeping them easy to manage and environmentally sound, the UEP contends.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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