What is colloquially known as the Egg Bill (HR 3798, SB 3239) is legislation introduced in December 2011 that was supported and developed by the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States to provide a federally mandated standard for egg-laying enclosures for chickens.
If passed, the legislation would mandate that producers switch over to using so-called “enriched colony housing.” Enriched colonies include features like perches, a separate nesting area and a scratch pad, as well as almost twice the space per hen as compared to conventional cages.
The groups behind the legislation say it provides for a more natural environment for the hens, said Rob Knecht, vice president of operations at Martin-based Konos Inc., the producer of Vande Bunte Eggs.
“This will keep the birds in an environment that lets them exhibit natural behavior while still keeping them in a situation where we can produce safe food,” Knecht said. “So it’s kind of the best of both worlds from an animal welfare perspective and from a food production perspective.”
The impetus behind Michigan’s egg producers pushing the Egg Bill is that it would provide a nationwide standard for egg production enclosures similar to the law Michigan has on the books. Without the passage of this bill, Knecht said, Michigan’s egg producers would be at a significant competitive disadvantage to competitors in less-restrictive states.
“People in Indiana, Texas and other states will be able to produce eggs far more inexpensively than we will be able to, and what we’re trying to do is just create a level playing field for everybody and do the right thing,” Knecht said. “We here in Martin, Michigan, have a fully enriched house. We’ve already started to make that transition because we feel it is the right thing to do for the birds and for the consumer.”
In October 2009, Michigan enacted a law mandating the state’s egg producers phase out conventional cages by 2019, replacing the old cages with the new, larger enriched cages. This put Michigan’s egg producers at a disadvantage to producers in the rest of the country since Michigan-based producers have to incur more overhead, sources said.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, one producer said the cost per hen to convert to enriched cages was between $25 and $30, putting the total conversion cost into the millions of dollars for some producers.
Knecht argues the patchwork of state standards — both California and Ohio also have cage restrictions similar to the Michigan statute — would drive up egg prices for Michigan consumers.
Though the Michigan Farm Bureau can sympathize with the plight of the egg producers, it thinks that a federal standard is not the way to go, according to Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel at the bureau.
“Our position is pretty straightforward: We’re opposed to national egg legislation,” Findlay said. “In January (2012), after talking with farmers from all 50 states and Puerto Rico … the policy was clear that we are opposed to mandates, whether those are regulatory or legislative in nature, that (affect) production practices for livestock and poultry products.”
The Farm Bureau’s worry is that mandating production practices for one type of livestock product would lead to a slippery slope whereby all livestock production practices would be mandated from the top down.
“The concern we have is if you have a piece of legislation that mandates for one segment of agriculture how they are supposed to raise that animal, where do you stop?” Findlay said.
While it does not support national legislation that would standardize the industry, the Farm Bureau is aware of Michigan’s egg producers’ situation.
“We certainly feel for them,” Findlay said. “They are in an unenviable position because the legislature of Michigan passed a state requirement that established a cage standard that makes them uncompetitive with other states, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that statement.
“… Creating a level playing field would be ideal. Where our consternation comes in is we just can’t see that in legislation.”
Findlay said Congress is unlikely to pass the legislation because other legislators are unlikely to erase the competitive advantage enjoyed by egg producers in their home states.
The alternative proposed by the Farm Bureau is that the standard should originate from within the egg production industry.
“Our belief is that there is an opportunity for the egg industry to set the standards that they want. If they really want this, there is an opportunity for them to establish (the standard) through their national organization,” Findlay said.
Findlay argues the industry would benefit from voluntarily adopting higher egg production standards as opposed to inviting in more federal regulation.
Even if the Egg Bill is passed, Knecht of Konos Inc. argued there would not be a shock to the market due to the long timeline for provisions on enclosures to take effect and be enforced.
“It’s not like this is something that has to happen in 12 months,” Knecht said. “This is something where we get 20 years to make the change.”
Knecht also said the passage of the Egg Bill would be additionally beneficial to Michigan by growing the market for enriched colonies, many of which are manufactured by Big Dutchman Inc. in Holland.
“If all those birds need to get converted over to this new system, then that’s tons of money we’re going to be pushing into the Michigan economy,” Knecht said.
Still, the Farm Bureau is categorically against legislation that mandates any production practices for livestock or poultry. Additionally, the organization is opposed to adding the Egg Bill onto the Farm Bill as a midnight amendment because doing so could slow down passage of the much-needed Farm Bill.
“The Farm Bill, in and of itself, is a big enough challenge to move,” Findlay said. “That’s really the focus right now. We’re trying to move that before the end of 2012 because we’re going to have some messed-up markets if we don’t.”