Chicken and egg debate heating up


With Congress launching debate on a new farm bill, there's no better time for Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to bring some sizzle to a major reform affecting one of the state's biggest farming sectors.

As the nation's third-largest egg producer, Pennsylvania has a major stake in a proposal introduced last week in the Senate — and already gathering sponsors in the House — that would improve living conditions for egg-laying chickens.

Following the lead of several states, the federal push to gradually shift all U.S. farms to larger cages for more than 250 million hens crammed into spaces so tight they can't spread a wing has been getting bipartisan backing.

More importantly, the measure represents an unusual alliance between the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers trade group.

When industry and watchdog groups join to support a particular reform, it's usually a sign that Congress should listen.

In this case, the improvements being sought in living conditions for egg-laying hens using so-called "enriched colony cages" has been determined by industry scientists to be good for business, just as it will help maintain abundant egg supplies at reasonable prices on grocery shelves.

The anti-regulatory fears of the pork and beef industry trade groups allied with a farmers' trade association really have nothing to do with the merits of the egg-industry measure.

What's more, Congress hasn't addressed farm animal-welfare issues in several decades. So it's not as if farmers have been constantly burdened with new rules governing the care of livestock.

The egg-production measure itself would provide for a phase-in period over the next 15 to 18 years for the new cages, enabling farmers to fully depreciate their existing hen cages.

New cages would be significantly larger, with half as many hens sharing mandated perches, nesting boxes, and scratching posts — all designed to create more natural conditions.

House cosponsors so far number around 66, while the Senate measure has fewer than a dozen signers. The only Pennsylvania delegation member to become a cosponsor is Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County.

This issue is too important to Pennsylvania egg producers to be ignored by the state's representatives. Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), as well as rural and urban members of the House, need to get aboard.