The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States signed an agreement Thursday that ends years of conflict and paves the way for changes in how egg-laying hens are housed, but also will likely result in higher egg prices.
The animal rights group and the egg farmers cooperative signed a memorandum of understanding to work to enact federal regulations stipulating the treatment of egg-laying hens and mandatory labeling laws.
The HSUS has long had an adversarial relationship both with agricultural boards and restaurant chains. In recent years, it has purchased shares in dozens of foodservice companies with the stated goal of changing those companies’ purchasing practices to buy food produced in what the HSUS considers more humane conditions.
Recent targets have included Steak ’n Shake, Jack in the Box and Bob Evans.
Patrick Lenow, executive director of corporate communications at DineEquity, parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP, said he sees the accord as a positive move.
“It’s good to see industry and those that have a special interest collaborate and reach agreement,” he said. “We take our commitment to animal welfare seriously, and this seems to be a positive move forward.”
This would be the first federal law addressing the treatment of animals on farms, according to a joint statement by UEP and HSUS.
HSUS president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle said at a press conference that the agreement “gives us a pathway for the economic success of the egg industry, and also dramatic improvements in animal welfare and consumer information about the industry.”
The proposed law, which the groups hope to have passed within a year, would require that egg producers transition their production facilities in which hens are housed in cages to larger “enriched housing facilities” that would have perches, nesting boxes, dust-bathing areas and scratching areas, allowing the birds to “express natural behaviors,” according to the release.
The egg producers would have from 15 to 18 years to make the transition, which the egg farmers would pay for. The agreement projects that the transition will cost $4 billion for the 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States — around $14 per chicken.
The new cages would give each white hen 124 square inches of living space. Larger brown hens would have 144 square inches.
Current voluntary UEP protocols, practiced by an estimated 80 percent of producers, require 67 square inches per hen.
The law also would require labeling on all egg cartons indicating whether the eggs came from caged hens, hens in enriched cages, cage-free hens or free-range hens.
In addition, the law would prohibit withholding food and water from hens to induce molting to extend their laying cycle — a practice already banned under the UEP’s certification program — and require standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia of the hens.
It also would prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses and ban the sale of eggs or egg products that don’t meet the new requirements.
As part of the agreement, the HSUS has agreed to withdraw the signatures it has collected for ballot initiatives requiring cage-free eggs in Washington state and Oregon, to stop promoting such measures, and to cease litigation and undercover investigation of egg producers.
The legislation would preempt existing state regulations recently enacted in Michigan, Arizona and Ohio, but not in California, whose voters passed a proposition in 2008 requiring that egg-laying hens have enough room to stand up, extend their limbs fully, turn around and lie down, starting in 2015.
But as part of the agreement the HSUS did agree that the enriched cages fit the California standards. Previously, it maintained that the rule required cage-free chickens.
The UEP maintains that the increased cost of labor and environmental footprint of cage-free housing is not sustainable.
Bob Krouse, the chairman of the UEP board, said he didn’t know how much the changes would affect egg prices as each producer would have a different economy of scale, “but study after study has found that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for animals that are taken care of in a way that they think is sustainable and humane and allows them to carry out their natural behavior.”
Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer of breakfast-and-lunch chain First Watch, lauded the agreement and said the increased cost from the enriched cages might be offset by a phasing out of cage-free and free-range operations by mainstream producers.
“To supply cage-free and free-range eggs takes them away from their core business,” he said. “When the whole system gets commoditized to where everyone’s using enriched colony cages, they can use 100 percent of their resources.”
He also said the 15- to 18-year phase-in period was a “realistic goal” and would likely result in less of a “cost impact” upfront.
Like a number of restaurant companies, First Watch has been working with the HSUS in recent years to phase in cage-free eggs, which Tomasso said currently account for about 10 percent of the 90-unit chain’s purchases.
As the enriched cages are phased in, he said the chain would consider shifting purchasing to those eggs.