State has a stake in chicken-and-egg debate


Being the nation’s third-largest egg producer means Pennsylvania should pay close attention to a proposal in Congress to improve the living conditions of egg-laying chickens. The state, though, has not yet joined the movement to ban so-called battery cages, which can house as many as 11 hens in a space little bigger than a microwave oven. That’s an image that should spoil your breakfast.

Ohio, Michigan, and California, where voters in a 2008 referendum mandated hens have enough room to stretch their wings, have banned new battery cages. The Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers trade group are also pushing for more humane standards.

The congressional legislation that has resulted from this unusual alliance shows a good balance between real-world egg-production practices and the idealistic goal of free-range chicken farming. It calls for replacing conventional cages, but only over a lengthy phase-in period stretching out 15-18 years, and with financial protections that allow farmers to fully depreciate existing equipment.

Along with other food-safety standards being imposed, consumers would be armed with new information on production methods used for the eggs they’re buying. Cartons would specify such things as whether the eggs came from “caged hens,” “hens in enriched cages,” “cage-free hens” or “free-range hens.”

This is not just a feel-good initiative, since the Humane Society notes that egg-industry scientists assert that “enriched colony cages are the best all-around solution for hen welfare, industry economics, and an affordable egg supply for consumers.”

For reasons that reportedly stem from antiregulatory fears, pork- and beef-industry trade groups have joined a farmers’ trade association (that also happens to pooh-pooh climate change) in opposing the measure. Congress, though, has a clear mandate to act from the farmers who know best how they want their eggs done.