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Senate Ag holds hearing on hen housing bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and members of the United Egg Producers made the case for her bill that would establish a single national standard for the treatment of egg-laying hens and the labeling of eggs, while a Minnesota egg producer said it would put small egg producers out of business.

The testimony was made before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Feinstein has proposed that her bill, entitled The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, be added to the farm bill, but so far both the Senate and the House have resisted.

Other farm and meat groups have opposed the legislation, fearing that it would lead to federal housing standards for other animals.

Feinstein noted that in 2008 California passed Proposition 2, creating a requirement that hens be able to stretch their wings and turn around and that Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Ohio and Oregon voters also passed laying hen initiatives. She said a federal law would relieve egg producers of “a patchwork of standards that make it hard for egg producers to know the rules of the road and to conduct interstate commerce.”

Feinstein said that her bill is based on a compromise between the United Egg Producers, which represents approximately 90 percent of the eggs sold in the United States, and the Humane Society of the United States, although no one from the Humane Society testified. She also noted that 16 senators, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have joined her as cosponsors of the bill, and that the American Veterinary Medical Association is supporting it.

Eric Benson of JS West, a California egg producer who has already installed what is known in the industry as an “enriched colony system,” told the committee that they could watch his hens live at www.jswest.com.

Feinstein said she wanted to counter the view that the bill would hurt small producers, and noted that farmers with 3,000 birds or fewer are specifically exempt from the provisions of this legislation. Organic, cage-free, and free-range egg producers will be unaffected by the housing provisions of the bill, except that they may see increased sales, she said.

But Amon Baer, a Minnesota egg producer, said that his operation of 300,000 laying hens is small by today’s standards, and that the bill would impose costs that his nephew, whom he hopes will continue his operation, could not bear.

“His replacement cost to convert to enriched housing and maintain his production base would double up to $5 million dollars,” Baer said. “Based on 40 years of my experience in the egg industry, he would not be able to raise the capital necessary to accomplish that, especially in today’s tight credit markets.”

In a news release, Baer also said, “This legislative takeover of on-farm production is not simply bad policy, it is also a thinly veiled attempt by the oligarchs of the egg industry to drive up production costs thereby driving out competition.”

Baer also testified, “I would like to state for the record that I personally, as well as others who oppose this legislation, have received threats in an attempt to force our support rather than oppose this legislation. We are evaluating those threats with lawyers and law enforcement officials.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was concerned the bill would cause an increase in the price of eggs and cause the cost of federal nutrition programs to go up.

He also questioned what impact it might have on trade commitments, and whether the Agriculture Department can implement it.

“Sen. Feinstein and the egg producers of California have a real challenge,” Roberts said. “There is no doubt that California’s Proposition 2 has created uncertainty in the industry. But I’m not sure this ‘agreement’ between the United Egg Producers marketing cooperative and the Humane Society of the United States is a solution that addresses the unintended consequences that we as policy makers need to consider.”