When news broke on July 7 that United Egg Producers had struck a deal with longtime nemesis the Humane Society of the United States, a lot of people had to check and make sure they weren't reading The Onion by mistake. The surprise announcement drew gasps of "stunning," "historic" and "landmark" from observers in the food and agriculture community. The often bitter antagonists appear to have buried the hatchet, at least temporarily, and not up each other's bottoms. Gary Truitt, in Hoosier Ag Today, wrote: "Unprecedented does not do the situation justice."
The former adversaries will jointly seek federal legislation based on their multipoint agreement to increase animal welfare standards in egg farms. The industry-standard cage used by more than 90 percent of producers will be phased out. Replacements will be equipped with perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas so the animals can attempt to act and feel like chickens, and the space allotted per chicken will nearly double. Practices like starvation-induced molting to extend the laying cycle will be ended, and limits will be placed on ammonia levels in henhouses. The agreement also calls for labeling mandates, which if enacted could be its most enduring legacy.
No hormones are approved for use on chickens, meaning every legally sold egg is "hormone-free."
Producers of the other white meat are wary of this agreement. The National Pork Producers Council unleashed a scathing response to the agreement, saying that if enacted it will "take away producers' freedom to operate in a way that's best for their animals, make it difficult to respond to consumer demands, raise retail meat prices and take away consumer choice."
It's ironic the pork industry would claim the egg agreement would threaten consumer choice. After all, the agreement only came about because consumers did choose, decisively. Or at least voters did. California, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio have already passed ballot initiatives for reforms similar to those called for by the new national agreement, and similar efforts are underway in Oregon and Washington.
UEP choose to bargain at the federal level rather then face state-by-state rejection of the practices it endorses. And while some are calling the agreed-upon reforms a decisive victory for chicken rights, industry may see it as a strategic retreat that secures a pretty good deal in the long run.
The proposed reforms would roll out at a seemingly glacial pace, especially in chicken-years. As written, it will be 15 to 18 years from the date of enactment before the improvements are fully phased in. And even if you double the size of a cage, it's still a cage.
Just as people now recognize milk as whole, 2 percent, skim or nonfat, they would become versed in the language of egg farming.
This probably isn't the paradigm shift that most chicken-rights activists, in their heart of hearts, really want. By signing off on improvements to the industry's worst practices, HSUS may be forfeiting the opportunity to make future enhancements to the quality of life of the nation's nearly 300 million layers. And by discussing cage size, HSUS is acknowledging that the answer to the underlying question of if cages should be allowed is "yes."
I asked Josh Balk, a spokesman at the Humane Society, if he thought this deal limits the potential to enact future improvements. "It hasn't limited the upside in other parts of the world where similar laws have passed,” he says, “like the EU, where there's a thriving cage-free market even though the new EU laws don't require cage-free housing systems. More than half the eggs in the UK are from cage-free hens."
If the same pattern holds in the states, it will be good news for non-factory chicken farmers, including the kind of mom-and-pop operations that package eggs in reused cartons with kid-drawn rainbows on the label next to sunny, baseless claims like "We hug our chickens." At the same time, if the agreement makes it through Congress, the days of label-by-whimsy may be over.
Enacted as law, the agreement's labeling mandates would add valuable clarity and accountability where it's sorely needed. Egg cartons have always been a lawless landscape—where anything can be claimed, few rules are enforced and the rare labels with any legal meaning are usually irrelevant.
“Natural," for example, says absolutely nothing about how something was produced. It only refers to the absence of additives in processing. In the case of eggs, "natural" eggs means "just eggs." Meanwhile, claims that eggs (or chicken) are "hormone-free" are about as meaningful as calling them "carbon-based." No hormones are approved for use on chickens, meaning every legally sold egg is "hormone-free."
The Humane Society and UEP propose that cartons bear labels identifying "caged,” "enhanced cages," "cage-free" or "free-range" layers. The "caged" option will be phased out, along with the practice, over the course of the almost two-decade-long transition. If enacted, these labels would be the first instance of federally mandated disclosure of farming practices, raising them to the status shared by the product's ingredients as information you have a right to know.
The four-tiered labeling system would link production practices more closely with market demand, and in doing so it would train consumers to consider how chickens are raised. Just as people now recognize milk as whole, 2 percent, skim or nonfat, they would become versed in the language of egg farming.
With milk products, the choice is purely about which fat percentage is better for your nutritional (or taste) needs. But the egg agreement is framed in terms of chicken welfare. Whether noticeable differences emerge among egg categories remains to be seen. And it's possible that science, if not the senses, will be able to discern levels of hormones, cholesterol and other biomolecules.
Of course, even the best factory farmed eggs are still a far cry from the best eggs. If you want to see a big difference in quality, seek eggs from pastured chickens. "Pastured" means they spend most of their time outside, eating plants and bugs, having sex in the dirt, and all that good chicken stuff. By comparison, the highest category in the UEP/HSUS agreement, "free-range," only guarantees that the birds have "access to the outdoors," which often means nothing more than a small dirt patch. Organic eggs are a good bet too, as are eggs that are uncertified but organic at heart—provided you can spot them. They're the ones with the kid-drawn rainbow on the label.