The Eat with Care blog
Writing on humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian.
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Hen bill heats up
Update: The Senate on 6.19 refused to put this bill into their version of the Farm Bill. It could always be voted on down the road, separate from the Farm Bill, but the “best hope,” according to a Humane Society spokeswoman, is that it makes it into the House version of the Farm Bill. Will continue to post updates here.
Egg farming in America currently means this: 280 million hens in cramped, crowded cages with nothing to perch on, scratch in, or nest in - in other words, a life of severe physical limitation and, quite possibly, psychological distress.
Egg farming in America could mean this, however, if a bill currently being debated in the U.S. Senate is approved: 280 million hens living in double the space they have now, along with perches, scratching pads and nest boxes – a life in which they can engage in the simple behaviors that come naturally to them.
Sure, it wouldn’t be 280 million hens running around on pasture or romping in roomy barns. They’ll still be caged, in new “enriched” cages that are questioned by some in the animal welfare community (see below). But life would improve in many ways for these millions of birds – the legislation would also ban forced starvation to induce egg laying and mandate euthanasia standards. Maximum ammonia levels would be put in place (good for workers, too) and egg cartons would have to state that the eggs came from caged hens. (There would be no effect on the practice of de-beaking.)
The Humane Society of the U.S., which forged this bill with its once arch-enemy, the United Egg Producers, is asking Americans to call their senators now and request their support of S. 3239, as well as “the Feinstein amendment to the Farm Bill.” (The amendment includes the same language as the proposed bill, just tucked into the Farm Bill, which will also come up for a vote.) If you support this legislation, the Capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121. Or you can just Google your senators for their direct phone number.
As I wrote last fall, this is historic stuff. Not only does it mark the first time an entire agricultural industry and a major animal rights organization have collaborated and compromised (NPR has a great story on the two leaders who made it happen), it would also be the first federal legislation to protect the on-farm treatment of any animal (only humane slaughter regulations exist) and the first law to have anything to do with chickens (they’re exempt from all humane slaughter rules, can you believe it?)
Because this is such a first, other sectors of the industrial meat industry are opposing the hen bill. The pork industry and the beef industry apparently don’t want Congress meddling in their farming. But Congress is us. And if we want better treatment for laying hens, and we’re the ones who eat the darn eggs eventually, shouldn’t we have a say?
It must also be noted that while most major animal welfare groups support the bill, there is opposition from the Humane Farming Association, which runs an animal sanctuary in California and educates the public about industrial animal agriculture. “A cage is still a cage,” the HFA writes. It also expresses concern that the bill would mean the vast majority of the nation’s hens would forever be kept in cages. (Of course, federal laws can always be rescinded and amended, and there is a growing marketplace demand for cage-free eggs that could make caged eggs vanish from our landscape sooner rather than later.)
Individual voices also question the legislation. Although Animal Welfare Approved, one of four humane certifiers in the U.S., is neutral on the bill, its executive director, Andrew Gunther, has expressed his personal concern, citing scientific studies, that the proposed increase in allotted space and new perches and nesting areas will still not be sufficient to allow birds to adequately express their natural behaviors. “We’re not even considering the need of the bird to run, fly and forage,” he writes.
It’s your call. Make a few calls if you support this bill. If you don’t, please purchase humanely raised eggs and call for change through the marketplace. These birds give us so much. Let’s give a little back.