Earlier this summer, there was discussion in Congress about how much space laying hens should be allowed to have in order for them to move around and spread their wings. The debate took place at a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

During this meeting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) talked about legislation that would set national standards for the treatment of egg-laying hens. The legislation itself is known as the Egg Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, H.R. 3798, and S. 3239. It was introduced the same day as the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the 2012 Farm Bill, and is similar to legislation introduced by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). The legislation would codify an agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers to double the size allotted to egg-laying hens.

Concern spreads

The debate over how much space laying hens should have in their cages and coops has drawn the interest and attention of other livestock producers and processors in the meat and poultry industry because of concerns over whether they might be the next targets of animal activist groups.

Feinstein’s legislation would increase the size of henhouses and require labeling of eggs so consumers would know how the hens laying them were raised- specifically, how much room the birds have to move around.

It is the idea of legislation governing production practices that has agriculture and agri-business groups concerned about what Congress might do in the future.

The National Pork Producers Council strongly opposes the bill. NPPC says passing it would set a dangerous precedent by allowing federal bureaucrats to regulate production practices on farms. NPPC says it would take away the freedom of producers to operate in ways best for their animals; make it harder to respond to demands by consumers; raise retail food prices even more; and remove consumer choice.

At a time of cut-down agriculture budgets, it would redirect money and resources from enhancing food safety and maintaining US agriculture competitiveness to regulating on-farm production practices for reasons other than public and animal health, NPPC says. The association is asking its members to call their US senators and ask them to oppose the plan.

US beef groups agree. According to Cristina Llorens, manager of communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, NCBA is concerned about the egg inspection amendments. “Mandated animal-production practices, such as those proposed in this legislation, are not in the best interest of promoting true animal welfare because they cannot easily be adapted or updated for different farming models,” Llorens says. The proposed mandate would also bring increased costs to consumers and limit their choices, she adds.

Llorens also points out 97 percent of US farms are owned by individuals, families or family corporations. “This kind of legislative mandate will add additional regulatory and financial burdens on these family-owned businesses,” she says. “The beef industry has voluntary programs that set guidelines for raising healthy cattle. These programs should never be weakened by being misused as the basis for a one-size-fits-all mandated approach to cattle production. H.R. 3798 could result in additional legislation that would target cattle producers.”

The National Chicken Council has not taken a position on the legislation itself. But Thomas Super, vice president of communications for the trade association, says NCC does have concerns about the federal government mandating on-farm production practices. NCC is particularly sensitive because it represents both poultry processors and growers.

Super also notes the differences between the broiler and layer industries. “The table egg industry and the broiler chicken industry are two completely different industries,” he says. “Broiler chickens produced for meat are not raised in cages,” he points out. But Feinstein’s effort to create national standards is related to an initiative passed by residents of California four years ago requiring hens be able to stretch their wings and turn around. More than five other states have created similar rules, creating a patchwork of standards. Producers and processors are afraid the same thing could happen in their industries. And small-egg producers are afraid it could drive them out of business.

What’s next?

Backers of the national plan deny it would lead to a “slippery slope” where animal welfare groups, if they can succeed in changing how hens are raised, would next go after livestock industries, including poultry and meat producers and processors.

If the national plan were to stand up to the scrutiny it is undergoing, it would then be added to the 2012 Farm Bill being considered by the House and Senate. What would stop additional amendments to the Farm Bill from affecting meat and poultry producers and processors? Could it lead to additional space and humane regulations before animals are slaughtered?

Recent charges of humane treatment violations in the meat industry are making this issue even more challenging to the industry.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant with Shire & Associates LLC.