Two traditional adversaries in farm-animal welfare announced what they hailed as a historic agreement to pursue national standards for egg production.
The proposed standards, announced Thursday by United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States at a joint news conference in Washington, D.C., would be the first federal legislation on how farm animals are raised.
Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society president and chief executive, called the agreement unprecedented.
"We are finding common ground," Pacelle said. This "would be the first national law that sets humane standards. We think it's time for that to happen. The American public obviously supports agriculture, but it also supports animal welfare."
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Kentucky had more than 6.7 million egg-laying hens that would be affected by federal standards, according to 2009 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Indiana egg farmer Bob Krouse, chairman of the egg producers group, said egg producers have long sought a route to better standards. He said European farmers have shown that the standards can result in better, safer eggs.
The proposed standards go beyond even those adopted by the European Union, advocates said.
"We are really excited as an industry about doing this," Krouse said. "National standards are vastly preferable to conflicting state laws and regulations."
However, another livestock trade group condemned the deal on that basis.
"Legislation pre-empting state laws on egg-production systems would set a dangerous precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals," Doug Wolf, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said in a statement. "NPPC is gravely concerned that such a one-size-fits-all approach 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, devastate niche producers and, at a time of constrained budgets for agriculture, redirect valuable resources from enhancing food safety and maintaining the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture to regulating on-farm production practices for reasons other than public health and welfare."
The Humane Society and other animal-welfare groups that have sought for years to eliminate "battery cages" for hens also have campaigned against sow crates that confine pigs; the pork group expressed concern that an egg law could lead to a pork law.
The agreement, which has the backing of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Farm Sanctuary animal-protection groups, is likely to mean slightly higher prices for consumers.
Krouse said that it wasn't possible to tell how much the changes could cost individual producers but that studies have shown consumers are willing to pay "a bit more" for food that meets some welfare standards.
Animal welfare, particularly as it relates to food safety, has become a hot-button issue for farmers and consumers across the United States.
As ballot initiatives in California and other states have pushed more humane standards, Kentucky and other states have formed special boards to set standards for the first time.
A federal law, if passed, would supersede most state standards but not those passed by a constitutional amendment in California, one of the largest egg-producing states. That could put additional pressure on Congress to set a national standard.
The California standards mandate that by 2015, all egg-laying hens confined in battery cages have room to extend their limbs, turn around and lie down.
According to United Egg Producers, which represents much of the industry, most birds now have about 67 square inches of space — smaller than an 81/2-by-11-inch piece of paper — and about 50 million live in less than that.
Kentucky, which has seen a surge in poultry production during the past decade, produced more than 1.1 million eggs last year; the state with the largest egg production is Iowa, at almost 15 billion eggs last year. Nationwide, more than 91.4 billion eggs were produced in 2010.
The proposed federal law would double the current cage size, to a minimum of 124 to 144 square inches — about the size of the daily newspaper folded in half — depending on whether the chickens are smaller white hens or larger brown ones.
The Humane Society and the egg producers group are pressing for Congress to pass legislation within the year, but the new standards will be phased in during the 15 to 18 years after passage.
Egg farmers said they expect it will cost more than $4 billion to retrofit existing hen houses with larger cages and "enrichments" — such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas — to form housing systems called "colonies." To accommodate the 280 million hens needed to produce all those eggs, more houses probably will be built.
Consumers would be able to tell how their eggs were produced under a new national labeling campaign that is part of the deal. All cartons would be labeled "eggs from caged hens," "eggs from hens in enriched cages," eggs from cage-free hens" or "eggs from free-range hens." Cage-free birds are raised in mass houses, while free-range hens have some access to the outdoors.
The proposed legislation also sets other standards for production practices, euthanasia and excessive levels of ammonia from the buildup of hen waste, which can affect the health of chicken-house workers and of hens.
As part of the agreement to jointly pursue the legislation, the Humane Society and other groups agreed to drop plans to file signatures for ballot initiatives in Oregon or Washington state. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., praised the deal at Thursday's news conference.
The Humane Society, which advocates cage-free egg production as the most humane, also agreed to put on hold undercover investigations, which have brought sometimes-horrifying practices to the public eye. The deal came after weeks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between the egg industry and welfare groups that resulted in a one-year memorandum of understanding between the two sides. That memorandum was signed Thursday morning.