World’s most abused animal: Why the egg bill isn’t a win for hens

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The great thing about keeping chickens intensely confined in barren battery cages is that once the super bird flu we are breeding in these facilities wipes out much of our population, the rest of us will have all the cheap eggs our cholesterol-loving hearts can scramble.

Am I really willing to pay about a cent more per egg to allow the 200 million or so egg-laying machines have a bit more space, a few perches, some torn newspaper to scratch at and pseudo-private areas?

If the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 passes, the egg industry will have 18 years to comply with new federal regulations – under the watchful eye of the notoriously industry-friendly USDA – that require hens that now live their entire lives jailed behind metal cages with little more space than a piece of paper be given a bit more wing room and some “enrichment” goodies (the perches, scratching materials and what are kindly being labeled “nesting boxes”).

Against all odds, this bill is the result of a partnership between two historically bitter enemies – the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an organization feared and reviled by the livestock industry for its many successful campaigns to improve living standards for animals raised for food, and the United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents the country’s biggest egg farmers who have fought the HSUS hard against the various state initiatives targeting factory farming that have now been passed across the nation.

The UEP claims it was tired of trying to comply with the many complicated, piecemeal laws pertaining to animal care standards and labeling so approached the HSUS in an attempt to come to a compromise and produce federal legislation that would create one national standard. The Egg Products Inspection Act is that compromise.

But the act has torn a rift on both sides of the debate. While the bill is supported by the HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, In Defense of Animals, Compassion Over Killing and the Animal Legal Defense Fund among many others, all well-respected organizations with the best of intentions, it is also opposed by many animal welfare organizations.

Strange bedfellows are jumping in the sack all over the issue. Groups like the Humane Farming Association, Friends of Animals, United Poultry Concerns and Last Chance for Animals, among others, join the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), American Farm Bureau Federation and their allies in Congress in fiercely opposing this bill.

Just hearing that the hog farmers oppose the act makes me want to support it. But the issue is not that simple. The livestock industry opposes the bill because it creates a national precedent for improving, even a little bit, animal welfare standards in the industry.

“This HSUS-backed legislation would set a dangerous precedent that could let Washington bureaucrats dictate how livestock and poultry producers raise and care for their animals,” NPPC president Doug Wolf, a hog farmer from Lancaster, WI, was quoted by Food Safety News as saying. “We don’t need or want the federal government and HSUS telling us how to do our jobs.”
“If enacted, it would open Pandora’s Box for special interest groups to pursue similar federal laws on pig farmers, dairy farmers and other family farming operations,” added Wolf.

I love how these factory farmers always try to create an image of the green, peaceful, family farm so many of our not-too-distant ancestors moved to California to get away from. Remember the family-owned farm Conklin Dairy? How could you after the scores of undercover videos exposing sadistic torture of farm animals have surfaced since Mercy for Animals released the footage of baby cows being stabbed with pitchforks, cows being punched in the head and day-old calves having their tails twisted and broken by Conklin employees?

Family owned means nothing when it comes to animal welfare. So is the bill gold just because the livestock industry – minus egg producers – hates it?

The industry calls the legislation the “Farm Takeover Bill,” and some animal welfare organizations are calling it the “Rotten Egg Bill.” While the bill would make minor improvements in the cages the birds are forced to live out their misery in, it would make it impossible to pass state laws actually banning battery cages. See, the bill bans barren battery cages, and sets a national standard that cages are acceptable.

The HSUS and the UEP boast that the agreement gives hens almost double the space now considered industry standard. The problem is that means in 18 years from now hens will get almost two pieces of paper worth of space. Also, any more progressive state laws that have been passed by voters will be nullified by the federal law.

I applaud the HSUS for its effort to make small improvements for all hens in the United States, but should we give up all hope for giving them a life worth living, rather than making confinement slightly more bearable? Male chicks will still be killed by the millions, suffocated and crushed in trash bags or shredded in garbage disposals, and the overuse of antibiotics will still be needed to temporarily protect the overcrowded birds from getting sick living in the disgusting conditions of a factory farm.

As Karen Davis, president of  United Poultry Concerns noted, “given that no amount of legislation will ever create truly humane treatment of mass-produced hens or any other mass-produced animals,” the 235 eggs every man, woman and child consumes in this country every year needs to be drastically reduced.

I really love the taste of a hen’s menstrual cycle too. I really do. But sometimes love means letting go. If you love your health, protecting humanity against super flues, fighting oppressors and promoting freedom, save the eggs for a super special occasion. Or, consider opening your home to a few of these charming individuals. Love and good care in exchange for a few eggs and good fertilizer for your vegetables might just save the world.

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