Chicken Battle Takes Groundbreaking Twist

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

It appears chances are fat, pigs are flying, and it’s snowing in hell. If these are the classic requirements for long-shot outcomes, then the United Egg Producers (UEP) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) hit the trifecta with the announcement in mid-July they have come to an “agreement” on how “enriched” the environment must be for laying hens to be truly happy. But not content with the group hug over layer cages, the two groups also signed a formal agreement to jointly seek federal legislation to enshrine their “Pax Ova,” superseding the law in all 50 states, and that’s where this situation leaps from merely stunning to incredible.

Various media outlets call the UEP-HSUS agreement “historic.” It is, indeed, groundbreaking. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is the first time a national producer organization has actively sought federal regulation of its on-farm production practices, and in doing so has enlisted the aid of arguably the world’s largest animal rights group.

From listening to UEP’s public and private explanations, there are several logical, and from a totally economic perspective, understandable motivations for this action; there are an equal number of unanswered questions.

UEP has, over the last decade or so, fought several very expensive battles against HSUS over state referenda on the use of conventional cage housing for egg laying hens, the most infamous being the 2008 loss of California’s Proposition 2. The state has yet to even propose regulations since the wording of the referendum language was so vague, and HSUS has challenged any California producer that tries to figure it out on its own.

Colorado and Michigan aggies rolled over for HSUS and agreed to phase out egg cages out of fear they too would be on the hook for a multi-million dollar statewide referendum battle. And adding insult to injury, states like Maine and Washington legislatively dealt UEP body blows. HSUS was on the way to gathering signatures to get similar referenda on the Oregon and Washington ballots come November 2012.

Several major retailers, by UEP’s admission, have been pushing the egg cooperative to make the cage issue go away. Not only is it an aggravating public relations nightmare, it’s an issue that has caused marketing and labeling hassles as well. Consider trying to distribute product nationally, but needing to ensure product moving into half a dozen states is produced in accordance with parochial state regulations. And then there’s the vague, who-knows-what-it-means California language from Proposition 2, further complicated as only California could by restricting, starting in 2015, the sale of any eggs within the state if the birds that laid the eggs weren’t housed in the same manner as California chickens.

HSUS was one of several groups that challenged at the Federal Trade Commission UEP labeling trumpeting the humaneness of its in-house certification program. HSUS won. Further complicating UEP’s life is an on-going antitrust action brought by HSUS that petitions the Department of Justice to bring criminal and civil charges against UEP.

This is and will be the HSUS strategy. On the federal level, HSUS and its ilk have been stopped cold; no legislation designed to put Uncle Sam on the farm to ensure happy cows, pigs, and poultry has been enacted by Congress. Realistically, however, the more successful industry is in Washington, DC, the more the battles have shifted to the states. The HSUS goal has less to do with the well-being of chickens and pigs in various states; it’s all about creating disarray among production standards, complications for interstate commerce – which drives processors and retailers nuts – and ultimately, costs the industry dearly. This is the real world implementation of the animal rights philosophy: “If you can’t legislate them out of business and you can’t regulate them out of business, then cost them out of business.”

However, the mind-numbing reality is that UEP was not coerced or forced by HSUS to agree to federal legislation; UEP came up with the idea on its own and voluntarily and with forethought approached HSUS and asked it if it wanted to play in the UEP sandbox.

I cannot fathom why federal legislation was deemed to be the best answer to UEP’s organizational and member woes. UEP has a solid certification program, albeit one based upon the use of conventional cages. From UEP’s explanation of its ultimate move, it appears there’s now general consensus among scientists and producers that a system called “enriched colony” cages – essentially larger, multi-bird enclosures with perches, dust bathing, and nesting options – is the wave of the future, and, in fact, is highly appealing to retailers.

So why didn’t UEP simply put on its progressive beanie and approach HSUS with an offer to partner with the egg folks in modifying the existing certification program to reflect endorsement of enriched colony housing? The two groups would then go back to those states with oddball production regs and jointly ask them to allow for a voluntary transition to the enriched colony cages.

My guess is UEP feared HSUS would not bite on that bait. To keep HSUS at the table and talking, UEP had to offer the most tempting incentive: a federal law regulating on-farm chicken production. Keep in mind, such consistency among state laws would solve UEP’s internal problems as well. HSUS insisted not only housing be covered by the deal, but elimination of forced molting, new egg labeling requirements, new standards of spent hen euthanasia, and – I kid you not – standards for bird exposure to ammonia in laying houses. HSUS President Wayne Pacelle must honestly believe he’s won the lottery.

For 30 years, collective animal agriculture has successfully beaten back attempts to regulate on-farm production practices. Why? Because, quite simply, there is no national problem in need of such heavy-handed a solution. There is progressive science-based husbandry going on out there, not systemic abuse or neglect among U.S. farmers. Nothing warrants allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to order farmers and ranchers to raise, house, handle, and transport their animals in certain ways, along with the inspection, recordkeeping, etc., under such a Draconian notion.

For UEP to offer Pacelle and HSUS the keys to the castle is monumental and scary. UEP swears its legislation – no one has yet seen a draft – will be wholly specific to the egg industry, and that HSUS agrees both groups will oppose any attempt to broaden it to cover other species and other practices. So eager is HSUS to make this deal happen, it has agreed not to pursue referenda in Washington and Oregon, will stop its call for cage-free systems, and will bring to heel the other animal rights groups that have demanded all laying chickens run free. Note this: Pacelle has already begun “reaching out” to the chief executive officers of other national livestock and poultry organizations, no doubt offering them the same deal if only they’ll be as enlightened as UEP. Good luck with that, Wayne.

The rest of animal agriculture ain’t happy. At this writing, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the California Farm Bureau, and the Animal Agriculture Alliance have all denounced the notion of federal legislation. Even the American Humane Association (AHA), which shows itself to be the only true animal welfare organization working to enhance production practices based on science, pragmatics, and cooperation – many say it’s AHA that actually refined and made workable the enriched colony system – has congratulated the embracing of enriched housing, but is withholding judgment of the overall pact until it sees what devils reside in the details thereof.

Capitol Hill is skeptical at best. Word is leadership on both agriculture committees is taking a strong “hands-off” approach to the UEP proposal. The only member of Congress to participate in the July 7, 2011, press conference announcing the UEP-HSUS agreement was Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a true darling of the animal rights movement and someone better known for taking to the House floor to extol the virtues of bicycle commuting than demonstrating any understanding of on-farm production. The USDA has been unexpectedly quiet about the deal, lest it unleash the ire of all other animal ag groups.

The deck is stacked against UEP and HSUS in its self-imposed deadline of having their legislative package enacted by June 30, 2012. First, Congress is loath to preempt state laws and lawmaking authority unless it’s a truly national issue with far-reaching economic and social implications. Second – and I speak from personal experience having worked on two federal preemption issues – it takes at least two congresses to move a preemption bill to the president’s desk because, given the breadth of HSUS demands in this deal, I can envision referral of the legislation to at least two, if not three, committees in each chamber. Third, and perhaps most significant, is that right now, UEP and HSUS have no material support outside of each other.

Dr. Simon Shane, a consulting poultry veterinarian, in a mid-July editorial penned for Egg-CITE, an independent egg industry newsletter, said, “It is noted that the ‘UEP’ is not synonymous with the U.S. egg production industry. There are companies which do not belong to the organization and others who do not approve of the most recent action, including both shell and liquid producers in specific regions of the country.”

Within the animal rights movement, there’s cautious optimism but no popping of champagne corks. Every veteran activist knows exactly what the UEP-HSUS deal means to the overall goal of the movement to end “animal exploitation.” Still, some “leaders” in the movement, including some within HSUS itself, have been quoted saying that if the effort fails, “all bets are off and we’re back to state referenda, regulations, and other tactics.” Also, a hallmark of the animal activist is impatience.

Carve away all of the rationalizing and hyperbole, and what you’re left with is this: If the UEP strategy, in the egg guys’ perfect world, is successful, it sets up all of animal agriculture for similar if less “friendly” attacks. The rationale will be simple: If it’s a good thing to regulate the egg producer to ensure proper housing, why shouldn’t the federal government set standards and regulate beef, dairy, broiler, swine, veal, and sheep, not to mention the various exotic species out there?

All of this argues for obvious actions. Producers must have the resolve to move with the times and embrace the science of progressive husbandry, including zero tolerance for bad actors. Producers need to ally with processors to ensure the processor understands, and there is mutual support and protection forthcoming when the inevitable assaults begin. Producers and processors must then redevelop an intimacy with the retail sector not seen since the 1950s so retailers feel confident the pressure brought to bear will be deflected by an aggressive partnership of producer – and their input industries – processors, and retailers. Then, the three cooperate to consistently talk to and at the consumer with the simple message: “This food is brought to you by farmers, processors, and retailers who care about doing the best and right thing in a truly ethical manner.”

An old hand in the animal rights movement once said to me: “Steve, I won’t take steak off the dinner table in a year or two, but give me a decade.” He said that in 2006.

View from Washington – August 2011 RENDER | back