Threatened with a series of state laws cracking down on cramped cages, the egg industry on Thursday said it would agree to seek federal regulation to improve conditions for egg-laying hens.
In an unusual move, the United Egg Producers announced the effort in a joint appearance with the Humane Society of the United States. The egg group represents 95 percent of the egg-laying hens in the United States.
Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president, said the new standards would be a historic improvement for millions of animals.
The two groups are proposing that Congress write and pass legislation to phase-out cramped cages over several years and gradually require what they call "enriched" cages. Those cages would give hens more space, perches and scratching areas that would allow them to express natural behaviors. The proposed legislation would also require companies to indicate on egg cartons how their hens were treated, with phrases such as "eggs from caged hens" or "eggs from free-range hens."
The proposal comes after laws requiring better hen conditions were passed in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio. Animal welfare groups were gearing up to propose additional standards in Washington state and Oregon.
"We are committed to working together for the good of the hens in our care and believe a national standard is far superior than a patchwork of state laws and regulations that would be cumbersome for our customers and confusing to consumers," said Bob Krouse, chairman of the egg group and an Indiana egg farmer.
The more-cramped conventional cages are now used by more than 90 percent of the egg industry. Under the proposed legislation, egg producers would invest $4 billion over the next 15 years to phase them all out and the amount of space birds are given would gradually increase over that time.
Food safety advocates have also pushed for larger cages as the smaller ones can promote the spread of bird feces, which can cause salmonella or E. coli poisoning. Last year, two Iowa egg farms recalled more than a half-billion eggs after a salmonella outbreak sickened almost 2,000 people.
The egg industry's move could set a precedent for other food producers. The pork industry criticized the deal, citing concerns that something similar would be expected of them.
"Legislation pre-empting state laws on egg production systems would set a dangerous precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals," said National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf. "It would inject the federal government into the marketplace with no measureable benefit to public or animal health and welfare."