Senate committee considers Feinstein's hen quality of life bill

Modesto egg farmer Eric Benson invited lawmakers to look in on his hens via live webcam.
Modesto egg farmer Eric Benson invited lawmakers to look in on his hens via live webcam.

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Which came first: the chicken or the egg legislation in Congress? California’s law that gives hens room to stretch has hatched a Capitol Hill political backlash, which surfaced at a Senate hearing Thursday.

Confusion over California's Prop 2

Two-thirds of California voters approved Proposition 2 back in 2008. The measure requires egg producers to provide enough space for laying hens to stand, turn around, and fully stretch their wings. It doesn’t specify how much space that is.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee that five other states have passed similar measures.

"The result of these individual state level initiatives," she said, is "a patchwork of standards that make it hard for egg producers to know the rules of the road and to conduct interstate commerce."

Feinstein has introduced a bill that codifies an agreement reached last summer between the Humane Society and United Egg Producers, which represents nearly 90 percent of egg ranchers. The proposal gives hens more than a hundred square inches of individual floor space. The amount of space would gradually grow over the years, allowing producers nearly two decades to meet the requirements. California producers still have to meet the state's 2015 deadline.

Feinstein told her colleagues the bill reflects what’s already happening in the marketplace because of consumer demand. "McDonalds, Burger King, Costco, Safeway, and other companies are already phasing in humane handling requirements for the production of the food they sell."

An eye on chicken welfare

Modesto egg farmer Eric Benson said he’s already adopted the new standards and invited lawmakers to look in on his hens via live webcam. Benson said his “enriched colony system” houses 60 hens in a 5"x12" cage and includes a nest box and scratch area. He said his hens eat a little more, but fewer die and he gets more eggs.

Benson said if we can't "gain a consensus in favor of this enriched colony system, at densities that society agrees is acceptable, the future will lie with those egg producers with the highest density of hens per square foot and cheapest possible approach to food safety — in a state where no rules exist and little concern is given to society’s concerns about hen welfare."

The bill has laid an egg with some producers. Poultry farmer Greg Herbruck told Senators the cost of buying new cages will essentially kill the small, family-run egg farm and result in what he called “a dramatic increase” in the price of eggs. And he brought up an argument made by pig farmers, that the law would establish a precedent that could virtually affect all livestock industries.

Some on the left also oppose the measure, saying the majority of hens would still “remain entombed” in “cages on factory farms.”

Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa not only opposes the measure, he inserted language in the House farm bill that slaps down California’s egg law completely.

The House has yet to pass its version of the farm bill. The Senate version passed, but without the Feinstein amendment. But chicken cage sizes could still become law when a conference committee merges the Senate and (eventual) House versions of the farm bill.