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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Companies Step Up for Cage-Free Eggs

Today, on The Hill’s Congress Blog, I wrote about how the pork and beef industries, funded by check-off dollars, lobbied against federal legislation that would have improved the treatment of egg-laying hens – taking a knee-jerk position despite the fact that the bill had no impact on them. Since Congress punted on the issue, the corporate sector has stepped up big time. We are seeing a rapid movement among producers, retailers, and restaurant chains toward cage-free eggs, with major corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s making recent announcements. Read the full article below or on The Hill’s website.

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The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are crammed into tiny, barren battery cages so small and cramped that the animals can’t even fully spread their wings. Animal welfare advocates and egg industry groups have been battling for years over the use of these cages, but in 2011, they set aside their differences and identified a solution for housing 300 million laying hens that balances animal welfare and the economic realities of the industry. The United Egg Producers, which represents more than 90 percent of egg farmers, and The Humane Society of the United States reached an accord in which both organizations agreed to jointly pursue federal legislation to improve the treatment of these animals and provide consumers more information about the origins of the eggs they purchase.

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Some of the nation’s largest egg producers are making investments in cage-free housing systems to meet consumer demand. Photo by David Paul Morris/For The HSUS

The Congress had an opportunity in the last session to enthusiastically embrace this kind of problem-solving. The bill, with 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 150 in the House, was backed not only by animal advocates and egg producers, but also by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Center for Food Safety and other major stakeholders. With all the affected parties lined up in support of a reform, you’d think it would be a no-brainer. It was good for animals, for egg farmers, for science and for consumers.

But remarkably, other sectors of animal agriculture—namely the pork and beef industries, which have no involvement in egg production and would not be impacted by a bill dealing only with eggs—cried foul and stamped their feet. They argued that Congress should not be in the business of setting standards for agriculture—never mind that there are already federal laws on humane slaughter and transport of livestock, and that these groups gladly take hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts from federal taxpayers. They claimed they knew better than the egg industry about what was needed for its sustainable future.They made a threat – one they wouldn’t be able to deliver on – to tank the Farm Bill if the reform sought by egg producers was included in the package. Lawmakers punted, abdicating the mantle of leadership on this issue.

With Congress failing to act on an agreement forged by the key stakeholders, the debate has reverted back to the states and to the corporate sector.Fortunately, major food retailers have had more of an appetite to deal with the issue in a proactive way than have our elected officials at the state and federal levels.

Most recently, McDonald’s—which buys 3 percent of all eggs produced domestically—announced it will transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada. Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, Delaware North and Centerplate—the nation’s top five food service companies, using, combined, well over a billion eggs each year—have all announced aggressive timelines for switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has announced it will eliminate cages. Walmart has announced it’s working to end battery cage confinement. The Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, General Mills, Dunkin’ Donuts and many other companies have adopted similar cage-free policies.

As a result, some of the nation’s largest egg producers are making investments in cage-free housing systems to meet this consumer demand. Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms—the second-largest egg producer with roughly 25 million hens—announced that it will move over time to 100 percent cage-free operations. Arizona-based Hickman’s Family Farms, another top producer, announced a major cage-free expansion and said it believes cage-free “is the future of our industry and our business.” Smart businesspeople and farmers know that the future of egg production is outside of cages.

Forward-thinking retailers and producers are moving the egg industry forward, even though the pork and beef lobbies callously blocked their preferred pathway of reform. Groups like the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are grossly abusing the check-off program and treating it like a slush fund to finance their lobbying schemes. Big Pork and others have worked to lobby Congress to set up mandatory payment transfers from every farmer. They’re supposed to use the tens of millions generated to do advertising to promote their commodity. The reality is, they divert millions of dollars to their own trade associations—money that these farmers (and the consumers who purchase these products) never intended to give to them. It leads to knee-jerk policies, and lobbying against the interests of consumers, animal welfare, and the very farmers the trade groups claim to represent.

While they may have some power to keep things static in Congress, these agribusiness trade groups have shown themselves to be powerless in stopping consumers and retailers from driving change in the marketplace. Big Pork is out of step with its own customers, fighting to hold onto antiquated systems like cramming breeding pigs into metal cages where the animals can’t even turn around and are virtually immobilized for the majority of their lives.

There is much that can still be done by elected officials at various levels. But for now, the corporate sector has shown real leadership, and nearly 100 food companies have pledged to get gestation crates and battery cages out of their supply chains—to make these abusive practices a thing of the past. The trajectory on this issue is clear, and American food production will invariably move toward a cage-free and crate-free future and away from inhumane and unsafe confinement systems.

 

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