When news broke on July 7 that United Egg Producers had struck a deal with its longtime nemesis, the Humane Society of the United States, a lot of people had to check and make sure they weren't reading The Onion by mistake. The surprise announcement drew gasps of "stunning," "historic" and "landmark" from observers in the food and agriculture communities. The often bitter antagonists appear to have buried the hatchet, at least temporarily—and not up each other' s bottoms. Gary Truitt, in Hoosier Ag Today, wrote: "'Unprecedented' does not do the situation justice."
The former adversaries now say they will jointly seek federal legislation based on their multi-point agreement to increase animal welfare standards on egg farms. The industry-standard cage currently used by more than 90 percent of producers will be phased out. Replacements will be equipped with perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas so the animals can attempt to act and feel like chickens, according to the agreement. The space allotted per chicken will nearly double. Practices such as starvation-induced molting to extend the laying cycle will be ended, and limits will be placed on ammonia levels in henhouses. The agreement also calls for labeling mandates, which could be its most enduring legacy.
Producers of the other white meat are wary. The National Pork Producer's Council unleashed a scathing response to the agreement, saying it will "take away producers' freedom to operate in a way that's best for their animals, make it difficult to respond to consumer demands, raise retail meat prices and take away consumer choice."
It's ironic the pork industry would claim the egg agreement would threaten consumer choice. The deal only came about because consumers did choose, decisively. Or at least voters did. California, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio have already passed ballot initiatives for egg-production reforms similar to those called for by the new national agreement, and similar efforts are currently underway in Oregon and Washington. California's passed by the largest margin of any referendum in state history.
United Egg Producers chose to bargain at the federal level rather then face state-by-state rejection of the practices it has long endorsed. While some are calling the new reforms a decisive victory for chicken rights, the egg industry may see it as a strategic retreat that secures a pretty good deal in the long run.
The proposed reforms would roll out at a glacial pace, especially in chicken-years. As written, it will be eighteen years from the date of enactment before the improvements are fully phased in. And even if you double the size of a cage, it's still a cage.
This probably isn't the paradigm shift that most chicken-rights activists, in their heart of hearts, really want. By signing off on improvements to the industry' s worst practices, the Humane Society may be forfeiting the opportunity to make future enhancements to the quality of life of the nation's almost 300 million layers. And by even discussing cage size, HSUS is acknowledging that the answer to the underlying question, "should cages be allowed at all," is "yes."
I asked Josh Balk, a spokesman at the Humane Society, if he thought this deal limits the potential to enact future improvements. "It hasn't limited the upside in other parts of the world where similar laws have passed," he said, "like the EU, where there' s a thriving cage-free market even though the new E.U. laws don' t require cage-free housing systems. More than half the eggs in the UK are from cage-free hens."
If the same pattern holds in the U.S. it will be good news for non-factory chicken farmers, including the kind of mom-and-pop operations that package eggs in reused cartons with kid-drawn rainbows on the label next to sunny, baseless claims like "we hug our chickens." At the same time, if the agreement makes it through Congress, the days of label-by-whimsy may be over.
The agreement's labeling mandates would add valuable clarity and accountability where it's sorely needed. Egg cartons have always been a lawless landscape where anything can be claimed, few rules are enforced, and the rare labels with any legal meaning are usually irrelevant anyway. "Natural," for example, says absolutely nothing about how something was produced. It only refers to the absence of additives in processing. In the case of eggs, "natural" eggs means "just eggs." Meanwhile, claims that eggs (or chickens) are "hormone-free" are about as meaningful as calling them "carbon-based." No hormones are approved for use on chickens, meaning every legally sold egg is "hormone-free."
The Humane Society and United Egg Producers propose that cartons bear labels identifying "caged," "enhanced cages," "cage-free," or "free-range" layers. The "caged" option will be phased out, along with the practice, over the course of the 18-year transition. If enacted, these labels would be the first instance of federally mandated disclosure of farming practices, raising process to the status shared by the product' s ingredients as information you have a right to know.
The four-tiered labeling system would link production practices more closely with market demand, and in doing so would train consumers to consider how chickens are raised. Just as people now recognize milk as whole, 2 percent, skim, or non-fat, they would become versed in the language of egg farming.
With milk products, the choice is purely about "which fat percentage is better for me?" But the egg agreement is framed in terms of chicken welfare. Whether noticeable differences emerge among different egg categories remains to be seen. It's possible that science, if not the senses, will be able to discern different levels of hormones, cholesterol, and other biomolecules.
Of course, even the best factory farmed eggs are still a far cry from being the best eggs. If you want to see a big difference in quality, seek eggs from pastured chickens. "Pastured" means they spend most of their time outside, eating plants and bugs, having sex in the dirt, and all that good chicken stuff. By comparison, the highest category in the new agreement, "free-range," only guarantees that the birds have "access to the outdoors," which often means nothing more than a small dirt patch. Organic eggs are a good bet too, as are eggs that are uncertified but organic at heart—provided you can spot them. They're often the ones with the kid-drawn rainbow on the label.