United Egg Producers, HSUS Clash Over Ballot Measure

The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal rights activism group, has been collecting signatures in an effort to get its Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act on California's November 2008 ballot. HSUS officials describe the measure as a moderate reform that would require the state's veal, pork and egg producers to ensure that their animals have sufficient

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal rights activism group, has been collecting signatures here in an effort to get its “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act” on California's November 2008 ballot.

HSUS officials describe the measure as a moderate reform that would require the state's veal, pork and egg producers to ensure that their animals have sufficient space to turn around and extend their limbs in any long-term enclosure. However, the state's egg producers have said that if the measure passes, language in the resulting law could effectively ban conventional egg production in the state.

“It would allow only eggs produced in cage-free systems,” said Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, Atlanta. “That would take away choices for consumers, and raise the price of eggs.” Citing data from a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of retail prices at 17,000 U.S. supermarkets, conventional eggs on average cost $1.19 per dozen, while cage-free eggs were $2.60 and organic eggs were $3.48 per dozen.

Gregory agreed that it would be difficult to predict how prices would react if all U.S. egg production shifted to cage-free, but California has approximately 19 million laying hens, meaning the measure would have a significant impact on regional production.

The UEP has predicted that retailers and restaurants would simply source lower-priced conventional product from out-of-state farms, and that many producers would likely leave the state when faced with the cost of converting or retrofitting their existing operations in California.

Targeting university dining hall operations, natural food retailers and upscale supermarket chains, HSUS has managed to convince dozens of colleges and corporations to adopt cage-free egg policies during the past few years. In addition, prominent food-service chains, including Burger King, Hardee's and McDonalds, have begun sourcing a small percentage of their eggs from cage-free operations. Paul Shapiro, senior director of the organization's factory farming campaign, said HSUS's success with these campaigns, as well as its success in getting similar bills and ballot measures passed in other states, including Arizona and Florida, indicates that the public is turning against these farming practices.

“The writing is on the wall,” Shapiro said. “These types of inhumane farming practices are not going to be permitted in the future. And it's going to come about through corporate policy changes, as well as public policy changes.”

At Petaluma, Calif.-based Sunrise Farms, managing partner Arnold Riebli noted that his company has increased production of organic and cage-free eggs in line with consumer demand. But, raising eggs in these environments requires a lot more space and a lot more labor, resulting in higher retail prices that have helped keep cage-free, free-range and organic eggs at a fraction of total U.S. egg consumption, he said.

With regard to conventional production methods, Riebli added, “I have nothing to be ashamed of with regard to how I handle my animals. Are there bad apples out there? There probably are. There are some in every industry. But I come from a farming family going back several generations, and I know that if you do not properly care for your animals, they're not going to produce.”