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Friday, July 13, 2012

Phony Front Groups are the Only Chickens in Hen Debate

It’s not uncommon for Washington lobbying groups to set up phony organizations that sound like they are advocating in the public interest, rather than for corporate special interests. Now there’s a new group inside the beltway with the altruistic sounding name “Keep Food Affordable,” set up by the pork industry to attack members of Congress who are backing legislation to improve the treatment of egg-laying hens and provide a stable and secure future for U.S. egg farmers.

So who is this shadowy front group? In this interview, videotaped this summer at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, a board member of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said “it’s funded mainly by NPPC.” And why would the pork producers care about legislation that only deals with laying hens, when they have no involvement in egg production, processing, or sales? Because they have among the worst records on animal welfare—with many large, industrialized operations confining sows in small cages, and producing enormous volumes of waste that pollute the environment. In fact, just this week, The Humane Society of the United States served notices to 51 pig confinement operations in the top pork-producing states for unreported releases of the hazardous pollutant ammonia.

Chickens_hslf_henbill_180_154The actual stakeholders involved in egg industry issues agree that Congress should pass S. 3239 and H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. This legislation has the backing of animal welfare groups, the egg industry, veterinary groups, and consumer groups. The United Egg Producers, which represents nearly 90 percent of the nation’s egg industry, and The HSUS, the nation’s largest animal welfare organization, have been long-time adversaries, but have come together and identified a pathway forward for housing 280 million laying hens that balances animal welfare and the economic realities of the industry. The nation needs this kind of problem solving, and the Congress should enthusiastically embrace it.

It’s because there are no legitimate arguments against the merits of the egg legislation that the pork industry had to create subterfuge with shell organizations. They have now resorted to attacking co-sponsors of the legislation with childish online ads, making false claims about how the bill affects consumers. In reality, all of the leading consumer groups strongly support the legislation, including the Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, and Center for Science in the Public Interest. One of the benefits for consumers is that the bill would provide labels on egg cartons so shoppers have more information in the marketplace about the conditions in which hens are raised.

Congressman Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the legislation, emphatically told the Staten Island Advocate just what these attacks are all about: “Everyone agrees it’s a good bill, except for a few special interest groups,” he said. “These cowards are hiding behind a front organization to launch misleading attack ads against a broadly-supported and humane policy that doesn’t even directly affect them. They’re the only chickens in this debate.” He’s exactly right.

If this front group truly wanted to “Keep Food Affordable,” it would enthusiastically swing behind the legislation to transition from conventional battery cages, where hens are confined in such small spaces they can barely move an inch for their entire lives, to enriched colony cages which provide each hen with about twice as much space, as well as nesting areas, perches, and scratch pads so they can engage in more natural behaviors. Studies show that enriched colony cages can be better for production than conventional cages, as the hens have lower mortality and higher productivity, making them more economically efficient in important ways for egg producers.

Since the changes would be phased in over the next 15 to 18 years, many during the normal course of replacing aged equipment, any consumer cost increases are expected to be minor. An economic study conducted by the independent research group Agralytica indicates that the changes are expected to increase consumer prices by less than 2 cents per dozen, spread out over an 18-year period. This very small increase, which will happen years into the future, is much less than natural price fluctuations based on a variety of other factors such as energy, feed, and distribution costs. However, if Congress does not pass this legislation, we could see disruptions in the marketplace because states now have conflicting rules, rather than one national standard.

So many newspapers throughout the country have endorsed the legislation, making the point that when all the stakeholders agree on a pathway forward, Congress should ratify the agreement. What if environmentalists and oil industry groups agreed on a path forward on energy production, wouldn’t that be a great day for our country? That’s the kind of landmark accord we have here, except that in Washington, special interest groups hide behind phony front groups and try to retard progress.

Call your members of Congress today at (202) 225-3121, and send them an email, asking them to stand up for legislation that is good for farmers, the economy, consumers, and animal welfare.

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