H.R. 3798 – a backwards approach to treating hens well

I recently received the following letter from someone soliciting my endorsement of H.R. 3798, amendments to an act regarding egg product inspection:

Dear Frijolito Farms,

I hope you’re well. Thank you so much for your wonderful commitment to sustainability.

I’m writing to you on behalf of a coalition of nonprofit organizations and family farmers to ask for your support of a national bill to improve the lives of animals raised for food. H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, would phase out one of the worst practices in factory farming: the confinement of hens in tiny barren “battery cages,” cages so small the birds can’t even spread their wings. We’d love to get your endorsement of this bill, which would improve the lives of more than 250 million egg-laying hens nationwide. If you’re willing to endorse, your farm’s name would simply be added to our list of supporters (there’s no financial obligation).

As a family farmer, you’ve already demonstrated your commitment to agriculture that’s based on environmental sustainability. Having met many small family farmers and ranchers over the years, I’ve found that such a commitment is almost invariably accompanied by a general concern for farming in a way that shows respect for animals. That’s why I’m contacting you today.

In addition to helping animals, phasing out these types of small cages will also help family farmers. This measure targets industrial operations that have been displacing smaller scale, traditional family farms. Small farms with less than 3,000 laying hens are exempt from this bill. Farmers who raise animals meeting organic or other high welfare standards already exceed the modest requirements of this bill.

H.R. 3798 would:

· require phased in construction of new hen housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently provided;

· require environmental enrichments so birds can engage in important natural behaviors currently denied to them in barren cages, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas;

· mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens” or “eggs from cage-free hens;”

· prohibit forced molting through starvation—an inhumane practice which is inflicted on tens of millions of hens each year and which involves withholding all food from birds for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle.

You can read the full text of the bill here: http://tinyurl.com/eggbill

This bill is endorsed by hundreds of family farmers, Farm Forward, United Farm Workers, the Humane Society of the US, the United Egg Producers, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the National Consumers League. If we can add your farm to our list of supporters, you can simply respond “yes, we support this bill” to this email. What do you think?

Thanks so much,

Karin Olsson

Yes on H.R. 3798

————————————————————————————

I read the full text of the bill, and didn’t like what I read. Here’s my reply:

Dear Ms. Olsson,

While I support the intent that motivated the creation of this bill, I’m afraid I can’t endorse it. I’m no more a fan of putting people in cages than I am of putting chickens in them. The USDA has become increasingly intrusive and is attempting to become overwhelmingly so. The last thing I want to do is to give them one more excuse to raid people’s farms.

Bills, when passed, become laws, and laws require enforcement and penalties. Have you given any thought to how these new policies would be implemented? Judging by previous USDA actions, I can tell you. First, all egg producers would be required to fill out forms, register their farms, submit to inspections, and possibly pay fees in order to simply be allowed to sell eggs. If a farm can’t label cage-free eggs as cage free unless they meet certain space and enrichment requirements, then some government inspector is going to have to verify that these requirements are being met in order to grant permission for that farm to use the term “cage free.”

You say that passage of this bill will help small family farmers. As a small family farmer myself, I strongly disagree. Operations of fewer than 3,000 hens will be exempt, but how shall the exemption be verified? Can any farmer simply claim to have fewer than 3,000 birds, and that will be sufficient unless somebody calls in a complaint to the USDA alleging that the farmer actually has 3,500? Or will EVERY egg producer nationwide, right down to the backyard hobbyist with six pet hens, be subject to inspection to determine their status (exempt, caged, or cage-free) before they’re permitted to legally sell eggs?

My hens are free-range. Their eggs are superior to those of cage-free hens raised indoors. If I had more than 3,000 hens, why should my eggs bear the same label as those that were raised indoors without cages? Passage of this bill would deprive free-range producers of a marketing advantage they presently have.

Also, by exempting small producers to the point of even allowing them to keep hens in cages without saying so, you’d actually make small farms look bad. I can see word getting around the farmers markets. A customer will see “EXEMPT” printed on a carton and tell a friend how she read a magazine article about how small farms that are exempt from the law banning battery cages don’t have to tell people, so you should steer clear of eggs from small farms and only buy eggs that have the USDA “cage-free” certification printed on the carton.

More than that, I can guarantee you there will be push back from the large producers over this. Frankly, I don’t think it would ever be seriously considered anyway, because too many politicians are in the pockets of Big Ag. But even if it was, there would be protest from the industry about unequal application of the law. If cages are bad, they’re bad whether you have one hen or one million. A compromise would be worked out, where either the whole bill is grossly watered down, or the small farm exemption would get written out–meaning the small farmers supporting this bill would suddenly be subjected to having inspectors measuring square inches and shutting down family farms.

In my state, Ohio, we recently voted for the creation of a Humane Livestock Care Standards Board. The problem with it was that it was all big producers appointed to the board. They wrote regulations to favor them, and their first draft of regulations would have effectively outlawed small and free-range production of poultry simply because, like this bill, the language was so heavily prescriptive. Fortunately, organizations of small and sustainable farms were able to testify at the meetings of this board and work out a compromise on the language. The agreement we came to was basically, “We won’t try to outlaw your farms, and you don’t try to outlaw ours.”

More than being a poorly written bill, HR 3798 is just a bad idea all the way around. Let the states work this out on a local level.

And what’s the deal with stuff in there pertaining only to California? It’s a national law or it isn’t. You can’t single out one state to have a different set of rules!

I’d encourage you to abandon this project, Ms. Olsson–or better yet, reverse your position and campaign against it. If you want hens to live happy lives scratching around outdoors, support the removal of local ordinances that discourage small farms from free-ranging. Support better wages and an increase in the number of good paying jobs. If people have the money to pay more for free-range and cage-free eggs, they will. People know about the deplorable conditions in factory farms. If you give them the opportunity to vote with their dollars, the ethical farms will win the market. The problem is that people don’t have the dollars to vote with. They need to get their food as cheaply as possible. Prohibiting the kind of operations that can provide it cheaply is attacking the wrong end of the problem.

Kind regards,

Wayne Shingler
owner-operator
Frijolito Farm
Columbus, OH


4 comments on “H.R. 3798 – a backwards approach to treating hens well
  1. Liz roberts says:

    Dear Wayne,

    Your concerns are understandable. However, I listened on NPR to a very large producer of eggs chiming in with her view- I’m sorry, I don’t have her name- she said it would likely cost her millions over the lengthy phase-in period, but that it could be passed on to consumers for approximately $0.01/per egg. Economy of scale at work. She felt it was probably “worth it”. Also some savings for the producer in animal health, etc.(my guess). Consumer plus- the eggs definitely taste better!
    Liz Roberts
    Milwaukee,Wisconsin

    • wayne says:

      Thanks for your comment, Liz. I apologize for the slow response. I had to work out a programming glitch in approving and replying to comments.

      You’re saying that compliance would cost millions of dollars over a lengthy phase-in period, enough to raise the cost of a dozen eggs by twelve cents even for the largest producers. If a lengthy phase-in period were not allowed–that is, if the law simply went into effect in six months and required everybody to be fully compliant–it would likely cost a good deal more.

      Where does that leave producers who don’t happen to have millions of dollars sitting around?

      You said, “Economy of scale at work.” Exactly. Is that what you want from our food system? More centralization? More huge factory farms? A situation where you can’t be competitive unless you can raise millions of animals in just-barely-legal conditions? I’d rather let those behemoth manufacturers of food-like substances keep doing what they’re doing, and let the free market divert ever more market share towards small, ethical farmers like myself. The more of us there are, the more demand we can meet.

      We have this dynamic between small farms and huge ones where the small ones have stewardship and sustainability as their guiding principles, and the huge ones see an opportunity for profit in appearing to mimic the small ones without substantially changing the way they do business. We saw this with the organic movement. Big ag destroyed the soil, polluted the water, poisoned their workers and neighbors, and made cheap, unappetizing imitations of food that shipped well. In reaction, customers started opting for fresh food from family farms. The family farms called what they were doing “organic,” so some of the huge farms switched from spraying one kind of chemical to a different kind that the government said qualifies as organic. Then the huge farms told the public, “Look, we’re organic now. We’re just like those small farms, only more reliable and convenient, more uniform and cheaper!” They weren’t treating the land any better or growing better food. They just tweaked things enough to steal a word the small farms were using to distinguish themselves.

      Now we see a similar thing shaping up with eggs, but rather than originating with the huge farms, we’re seeing it as a grass roots push from the public. Switching from cages to crowded indoor facilities does not make free-range eggs. When eggs taste better, it’s because the hens have a better diet. And the very best diet includes large amounts of forage, including worms, bugs, and leafy plants. Simply taking the cages away and putting birds on the floor isn’t going to give them that kind of diet. It’s not going to give them the fresh air and sunshine they need to stay healthy. It’s not going to give them dirt to scratch around in for entertainment. It’s not going to give them a smaller flock size that allows them to socialize more naturally. Their eggs will still be crap compared to free-range eggs from a happy, healthy flock. But the producers will be able to slap “cage free” on their cartons and say, “See? We’re just like those little guys you buy eggs from at the farmers markets now! Only we’re more reliable and convenient, more uniform and cheaper,” and a lot of customers will fall for it. Meanwhile, many of the small farmers who’ve been doing it right all along may be forced out of business trying to comply with inspections and filing deadlines and whatnot. I don’t see this as a good thing.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Hello Wayne,

    I have been researching this issue for a grad school project and I can tell you that it makes my head spin, and I keep hopping from one side of the proverbial fence to the other. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this bill is poorly written.

    I think California is “called out” in the bill because of its current Prevention of Farm Cruelty / Confinement law, which just emphasizes your point that this bill would take away any power re: this and similar issues.

    I think maybe some huge changes in this bill might make it tolerable: it could provide for MINIMUM standards for those farmers that choose to use cages. The clause that restricts states’ action could be removed. That way, if states want to enact their own, stronger laws that better fit the farming practices of that state they can.

    But even with those, we’d still have the USDA so-called enforcement:”I promise we are complying, cross my heart, hope to die! ”

    As a near-vegan I no longer use eggs but wish you and your chickens the best.

  3. CRAIG J says:

    Heya folks.
    My thoughts are as such: If you’re not a farmer or in the industry…Ya ain’t got much to say on the matter. If you’re a vegan; it’s pretty obvious where you politics/views on omnivores are. Attempting to force people to change their nature through regulation and passive aggression is just as wrong. People have been snacking on animals since the beginning of time.

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