Blumenauer: Egg-laying chickens initiative headed to 2012 ballot

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

It's unusual for a member of Congress to weigh in on a policy matter working its way through the Legislature. But that's what Congressman Earl Blumenauer did today, with regard to SB 805 - a measure that would regulate the treatment of egg-laying chickens. And it puts him squarely at odds with Senate President Peter Courtney.

The backstory, from the O's Janie Har:

Right now Oregon chickens each get about 67 square inches of space.

Courtney, a Salem Democrat, found that figure intolerable, which is why he joined initially with The Humane Society of the United States to introduce Senate Bill 805, with the original 216 square inch figure.

But then Courtney chose to work with the Oregon Humane Society and the Northwest Food Processors Association and he shut out the national Humane Society. The group came up with the 116 square inch compromise, and The Humane Society of the United States has since teamed up with others to put the issue on the ballot.

On the ballot? That's right. According to the statement released by Congressman Blumenauer (on Facebook, among other places), the cage-free eggs issue is headed for a ballot measure fight in 2012.

From Blumenauer:

There is a great deal of concern about amendments made to SB 805. It’s my understanding that the original goal started as cage-free poultry production, then the compromise to 215 square inch cages, and then 144 inches. Now it’s 116 inches. The difference may not seem like much, but to a chicken that will spend its entire life in that 116 square inches, I suspect an extra 28 square inches might be significant.

Most importantly, implementing changes over 15 years does not seem to me to be pro-animal.

To be clear, I am not looking at this legislation as a one-time trade-off between tinier cages, a 15 year implementation, and more chickens covered versus larger cages, faster implementation but putting aside chickens that lay eggs used in food production (which is about 1/3 of chickens today). This is part of the bigger picture, and relates to work that I have been doing for years with the Humane Society and others to make factory farming more humane. I have supported animal welfare requirements for pigs, chickens, and calves and have helped in a critical part of this strategy-- state-by-state implementation through the initiative process.

That state by state implementation process is why SB 805 is important. The Northwest is in the spotlight. There is a strong measure on the ballot in the State of Washington this fall. There will be another initiative on the Oregon ballot in 2012. Initial surveys indicate overwhelming public support for stronger regulations; there is an excellent chance of these ballot measures passing. ...

I don’t support the amended SB 805 because I know we can do better. I’m hopeful that the pro-animal forces will find common ground. To be most effective, we should work together to promote healthy and humane practices for all animals. In the meantime, I’ll be supporting the Oregon ballot initiative that would expand the protections and achieve them faster, setting the stage for strong national standards.

There's more backstory (and endless chicken puns) from the O here and here. Discuss.

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    Full disclosure: My firm built Earl Blumenauer's campaign website. I speak only for myself.

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    While I applaud efforts to make life more enjoyable/less unpleasant for the hens (however one wants to see it), I really think the best way to transition layer production realistically is through market forces. The more people there are who are willing to pay for large colony pen, free range or cage free eggs, the more producers there will be who will keep hens in systems that can produce those types of eggs.

    At the very least, the market for those types of eggs has to grow to support expansion of those systems. If they don't, those production systems will collapse and be replaced by imports from locations where the old battery cage systems are still legal.

    It costs more to produce eggs in cage free and free range systems as well as simply larger cages such as large colony cages. In the case of larger colony cages, there is less production per cubic foot of building. In the case of cage free and free range systems, in addition to lower capacity, there are higher labor costs. I'm very familiar with the free range and cage free issues and cost of production because I manage the laying hens on my farm in a modified free range system. My birds are penned in their coop for part of the day and the rest they spend running around on the farm. Which means I loose some production to rogue layers (birds who don't use the nest boxes) and then it costs more to go out and pick up the eggs manually, where as cage layers' environment is largely automated. There is also more labor in cleaning and packing the eggs. Cage layers' eggs hit the conveyer largely clean. Free range and cage free systems produce eggs that can have mud and manure coating the shell, requireing heavier cleaning.

    If the commercial layer industry is to be regulated under these new requirements (assuming a measure does pass in 2012), and the market to support the higher cost of production isn't built at the same time, we're going to see the loss of our commercial egg farms and imports of eggs from out of state. And it won't do anything to help the plight of the commercial laying hen.

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    I'm glad this issue is before the public. It is not only a question of humane treatment of animals but also a health issue as current studies show that the incidence of Salmonella, of which there have been recent outbreaks, is much higher among the cramped caged chicken population than among the uncaged chickens. A study of this issue by egg growers association shows the cost per egg raises by one penny to move to an uncaged chicken population.

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      Do you have a link to the egg growers association study? I'll bet they were talking about large colony cages, not free range or completely cage free systems. The cage free systems are similar to broiler houses, where the birds are kept out of cages but are in large buildings at relatively high stocking rates. Free range models are similar to what I do or what pasture based poultry farms do. The faux free range birds are birds that are managed in a cage free system but only have restricted access to the out of doors due to disease concerns.

      Diseases like low pathogenicity avian influenza cause whole farms to be depopulated of birds, due to trade regulations. Several farms were just depopulated due to contact with infected birds (I forget which state this was in), even though none of the birds were sypmtomatic or had dropped produciton. Exposure to the virus was detected by normal surveillance at a wet market.

      Large commercial flocks that are participating in the National Poultry Implrovement Plan (NPIP), which I think all the large commercial cage layer farms do, won't risk birds being allowed out of doors.

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    Joanne, thanks for weighing in here with your personal expertise.

    I wonder, however, if your economic arguments carry weight with those who believe that this is a moral issue -- that how we treat animals, including food-producing ones.

    So, I guess I'd ask you - do you see a moral component to this discussion? Or is it merely an economic one?

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      Kari, I do think there's a moral component to the discussion. In fact I think the moral component is the most important one.

      That's why I manage my birds (both layers and meat birds) the way I do. Having managed free range poultry and fowl as well as breeding birds in large flight pens, I can understand the alure of keeping laying birds in battery cages. There ain't nothing fun about digging through brush to collect eggs from a bird who decides that blackberries make a better nesting spot than the nice hay bedded crates I provide in the coop.

      That having been said, I think that the economic component is important too.

      There are people who are concerned with the morals of keeping/manageing animals in a particular way, and those people are the ones who, even buying at the store, will spend extra money to purchase eggs from commercial cage free farms. However, there are others who just plain don't care how the animals are treated and are only concerned with the cost of the eggs. Those are the people we need to work on, through education, to build the market for the more humanely raised/managed birds.

      Lets face it, birds managed in larger colony cages aren't going to be producing eggs that taste any better than the ones from birds raised in a free range system. That has less to do with breed or housing than it does with outdoor activity in which the birds can forage and eat a wide variety of plant material and bugs.

      So what's going to happen is that the price of the eggs goes up (at varying rates depending on the type of system that is ultimately mandated by the voters) while the quality stays the same.

      That's why I say that if we want the main production models to change we have to build the market for that more expensive product at the same time that the old systems are phased out and the new systems brought online. And the way we need to do that, as a society, is to convince the people who are only concerned with the price of eggs at the store, that the moral component is important.

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        One bit of good news is that the market is growing for the more humanely produced eggs. If if wasn't the demand for these more expensive eggs wouldn't outstrip production. I have a ridiculously tiny layer flock, just 60 hens, and I have more demand than I can supply at $3/dozen. Just a couple miles up the road from me, another farm has several hundred layers that they move around the pastures, and I don't think they can keep up with the demand. I know of another farm to the north of me that has over 400 layers, and I don't think they're quite keeping up with the demand.

        So there's a market out there that's pretty healthy and robust. We just need to convince more people to spend a little extra so that the animals they're depending on for sustenance have a better life.

        As an aside, there's another issue that I don't know that people have taken into consideration. The more room you give the birds, the less production you're going to get out of a given space (that's obvious). The less production you get, the higher your per unit overhead is.

        Assuming that the new management system a farm uses doubles the cage space per bird, in that given space, you'll raise the production costs, at least for the buildings and other infrastructure. Sure, you'll be feeding fewer birds (buying less feed) and have fewer eggs to inspect, so you'll be paying the federal inspectors for fewer hours worth of work (maybe), but the cost of things like the building, electricity to light the building and run equipment, pay your workers, heating, cooling, is probably going to be about the same. Obviously lower volume production has to yield a higher margin in order to maintain a certain ammount (not percentage) of profit. That's why I wonder about the egg producers association's info that the new larger cages would only raise the cost of production by $0.12. Maybe, but what will it do to the actual income of the person/family who owns the egg farm? How much will he/she or they have to raise the price of the eggs to make the same ammount of money with half the production?

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    People who are concerned with the ethical treatment of poultry can also do what my family does, which is to raise our own hens. Most cities, including Portland allow people to keep 3 or more hens in a traditional residential yard. Our 3 birds share a 20-sqft mobile coop and have access to a fenced 100-foot run during the day. We rotate the run and grow vegetables where the run used to be. They keep the weeds and bugs down and provide free nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Plus, my daughter loves taking care of the birds.

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      That is certainly a good personal solution. It won't work for everyone - apartment dwellers, for starters.

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        True. But through the 1940's, home poultry accounted for the majority of egg production in the United States. If you believe as I do, that non-local commercial farming has made us fatter and sicker as a country, then a backyard flock is something to look at, particularly if you grow vegetables during the summer anyway. Certainly CSA's and farms like Ms Ragutto's are also an important part of the food picture going forward.

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          Yup, and during that time a lot more people were involved in farming. Now just 2% of the people in the USA are farmers. Such a huge part of our population is removed from agriculture it's no wonder that so many don't know or care about the conditions that animals are raised in. In particular high stocking rates are hard on poultry.

          There's a reason why a large portion of the upper beak has to be cut off in birds raised in high density management systems like cage layer farms and even farms where commercial turkeys are raised.

          In addition to several heritage breeds and mixed breed layers I have white leghorns, the same birds raised and managed in battery cage layer farms. These are very high energy birds, they can verge on the skittish and are also very pushy. When you stock poultry in those kind of crowded conditions one of the behavioral issues you have to deal with is feather picking, which often leads to canibalism. Same with turkeys, who live for a lot longer than broilers but not as long as layers. If you look at the commercial high density turkey farms, those birds have had their upper beaks trimmed too.

          They don't do that with the broilers as those birds are much more placid and by the time the birds get big enough that the density might be a problem, the birds are ready for slaughter and are hauled out to the processing plant. Although broilers do have their issues, they're more physical issues caused by rapid growth than behavioral issues.

          White leghorns are increbible egg producers, but in my mind they're way too nervous and high energy to be stocked at the density that the battery cage farms stock them at. If the birds weren't the hatcheries wouldn't have to clip the beaks.

          If more people worked with poultry, especially that breed, they'd understand why, from a strictly beharioral point of view, battery cages are not humane.

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    We love our backyard flock, although urban chickens are not for everyone. We were butchering some excess older hens in the back yard a couple years back and our neighbors came home from church with their kids. The parents took one look at our axe, chopping block, boiling water bath and squawking chickens and started running around in circles to gather their young children to get them indoors away from the lesson in poultry raising. I wonder if those kids have eaten chicken since that day.

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      Guess it's just me, but I find the irony that a family that just hotel spraying in a church whose central figure is a Jewish man allegedly nailed to a tree, whose executions celebrated in just, too rich. Add in that many such households celebrate the date of this alleged execution by eating roasted pig, to then get flummoxed by the killing of some chicken for food next door, makes it bordering on laugh out loud comedy.

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    I am very impressed that Rep. Blumenauer has taken a strong stand on this.

    And if the big chicken farms have to raise egg prices, so be it. Maybe less people will support the big producers, then.

    It's unhealthy to keep thousands of livestock at a single location, anyway- too much concentration of excrement. This is a problem with factory-farmed chickens, hogs and even farmed fish.

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      The manure issue is very concerning. Kind of reminds me of some of the big cities around the turn of the last century when the horse manure problem was so bad. There was a good market for the manure from horses used for drayage untill commerce got to going too hot and heavy in the big cities. Eventually there was so much supply that the market crashed and you couldn't hardly pay farms to come get the stuff. At one point, I think it was in NY City, there was a full city block that was piled 40' with horse manure. Now that's what I call an over abundance of nutrients.

      It's a shame that more of these farms can't find a good use for the stuff. I know I value what comes out the back end of my livestock just as highly as what I purchase to go into the front end.

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    Interesting that the measure for the cages is square units, a video I recently on something related showed stacked cages, not sure how the sanitation works there nor if they were layers. I make the difference to be roughly 10.5 x 11 inches vs. 14 x 15 inches. Sounds like a gain in breathing more than movement.

    The price increments are striking & would make a difference to lower income families. Cheap eggs are ca. $1 to $1.30 per dozen. Cage free at Trader Joe's jumps you up to $2.39 a dozen, recently discovered that New Seasons has cage free at $1.99 dozen, don't know if it's a special supplier or an upscale loss leader. Free range which seem usually also to be organic feed are in the $4.00 per dozen or up range. For people with families who use many eggs and have low incomes those are differences that make a difference. If you've got a kid with a peanut allergy and lactose intolerance or milk allergy, and who doesn't eat meat, you rely a lot on eggs & yoghurt for protein.

    I used to be a professional historian and more recently have studied public health. I think Sal P is right in one sense, that we could be collectively less fat and healthier now than we are. Certainly I could be.

    But life expectancy has steadily risen since 1940 (and before). A large chunk of that is childhood immunizations and other cuts to infant/child mortality including expanded calorie diets. Declining smoking has helped. But another large chunk is the end of hard physical labor in long hours that kill you, whatever bad should be said about sedentary living. And there really is something to be said for people not going hungry, even if they are fat.

    Beyond this I get into ethical rough waters and face a Scylla of present hypocrisy and a Charybdis of imagined changed habits self-righteousness.

    Eggs are depressing.

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      I agree with everything you've said here. One of the things that troubles me about this legislation is how it will affect people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and whether or not it will actually improve mass farming or whether it is simply a mandate that makes Oregon egg producers less able to compete with producers in other states.

      Either way, I suspect that the narrative of a Portland Democratic congressman pushing these changes onto the rest of the state is not one that works well for Democrats. Fair or not, there is a real and rather pervasive perception that "latte liberals" from Portland are tone deaf to the realities of life of actual working families and farmers trying to make a living out here in the ag-producing hinterlands.

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    I think the animals (humans are animals) who feel it's perfectly fine to stuff other animals in cages, aquariums, crates, etc, to make our lives more convenient and entertaining maybe ought to spend some time in a container themselves.

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    I don't have a link to the study I cited. I learned of it in a news report on a Portland station just this past week. I believe it was KATU. The study was cited on air in an interview with a SPCA representative. It was not challenged by the reporter nor by the industry representative so I assume it was real.

    I noted that California is now considering going totally cageless. And their Prop that passed in 2008 is being interpreted as mandating it.

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    Here is the link to the guest column from Senate President Peter Courtney and Sharon Harmon Executive Director of the Oregon Humane Society. I think its important to get their perspective on this Oregon solution.


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