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Published February 20, 2012, 11:03 AM

UEP defends deal with HSUS

Will Wal-Mart-style marketing be the reason if a proposed standard on laying egg cages becomes federal law, and part of the farm bill? Gene Gregory, president and CEO of United Egg Producers, says yes, eggs are a commodity and large producers that sell to big customers such as Wal-Mart need to move across state lines without a patchwork of rules.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Will Wal-Mart-style marketing be the reason if a proposed standard on laying egg cages becomes federal law, and part of the farm bill?

Gene Gregory, president and CEO of United Egg Producers, says yes, eggs are a commodity and large producers that sell to big customers such as Wal-Mart need to move across state lines without a patchwork of rules. UEP has made a negotiated deal over cage size with the Humane Society of the United States, for a bill that proponents plan to offer as an amendment to the farm bill.

Gregory acknowledges that if the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 3798) is passed in the farm bill, it will mean extra costs for smaller producers who market regionally, like Amon Baer and his brothers near Lake Park, Minn. The Baers may not require national uniformity, but he says it’s important for producers in states such as Iowa, with 55 million laying hens and only 3 million people, to be able to export throughout the country, without state-by-state restrictions.

The UEP head acknowledges that only his organization’s board of directors voted on the deal with HSUS, but he says that is a common organization policy. While there was no secret board ballot on the issue, Gregory, says there was “absolutely not” any business-to-business influence among board members that would influence a vote.

Centered on eggs

Gregory also acknowledges that this would be the first time Congress would set specific size standards for a livestock enterprise, but that it “came from UEP working jointly with HSUS,” and not with any bureaucrats. He says the bill is clear that this is “only about egg farming” and has “nothing to do with pork, or beef or anything else.” He says it would be “difficult” to do anything similar with other species, without producer support.

He says the federal legislation is necessary because conflicting state laws, passed separately through state legislatures, would make it too difficult for those who market eggs to several states. “Eggs are a national commodity,” he says. “You can’t have that kind of thing affecting interstate trade.”

He says it would be “possible” that California’s Proposition 2, passed in 2008, banning smaller cages but not taking effect until 2015, eventually could be challenged in a courtroom for interfering with interstate trade, but it would be “a long and expensive process” and that “voter referendums are almost impossible to overcome.”

The cattle industry sued over a California law that would ban using “downer” animals for slaughter on grounds it would violate federal meat inspection laws. “You can do that, but how many states are you going to do that with? We’re paying lawyers so damn much anyway,” he says. “I don’t know whether our industry has that kind of money to fight all of those lawsuits and do it on a state-by-state basis,” he says.

Gregory notes that HSUS had been advocating for completely eliminating egg-laying cages, and going cage free. They had proposed 216 square inches per bird in cage-free facilities. The UEP started at 90 square inches, said they were willing to go to 116 and compromised at 124 square inches, which is not based on any scientific study, but a “negotiated” figure.

“We think we made a huge movement in getting HSUS to accept the ‘enriched’ housing systems,” Gregory says, describing scratch pads, perching and other amenities. Still, he admits he can’t say there’s “any way to guarantee” that that’ll be the end of it. “Absolutely not,” he says.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the HSUS, did not return a phone request from Agweek for an interview, nor was a substitute expert provided, as promised. The industry boasts 11 million members and revenues of $160 million. The group claims to have been responsible for 25 successful state ballot initiatives since 1990.

In his blog, Pacelle defended the compromise with the UEP, which critics in his own organization call “extremely lopsided toward the industry.” Pacelle responded there is “no other logical or practical pathway to drive positive change at this scale. He said one-quarter of the industry (70 million birds) would start converting away from battery cages within six years; 55 percent (150 million birds) within 12 years, and the entire industry in 15 to 18 years (280 million birds).

He said “tens of millions of birds” are in the “most severe and extreme confinement — 48- or 52-inch space allotments per animal,” meaning they “don’t even get the inadequate 67 square inches called for in pre-existing UEP voluntary standards.”

He was talking about producers such as the Baers.

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