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Liberty for hens?

MODESTO, Calif. -- Thank you for your reporting on the United Egg Producers-Humane Society of the United States deal (Agweek, Feb. 20). The focus on Amon Baer is understandable, and I appreciate the other side being profiled as well. It is undeniable that the public and the egg-consuming public are at two minds on the welfare of egg laying hens on the farm.

If you ask consumers if they would like to pay more for eggs, they most certainly will say no. If you ask the same consumers if they would like to see more room for the laying hens, they almost always will say yes. If you put up a ballot question, the voter will vote for more room for the birds. We in California discovered this in 2008 with Proposition 2. Despite an expensive campaign, spending millions to educate the public on modern farm practices, the expense of converting farms, the extra cost of a dozen eggs and the current happy condition of our hens, more than 60 percent said sure, why not give them more space.

We think the public expects a certain minimum care for the treatment of animals. To have 50 versions of that, mostly vague and unenforceable, is counterproductive for the country, our industry and even Baer. The extra cost of replacing housing in the next 18 years is more than offset by costs of a patchwork of local and state laws, all with different requirements. By the way, the average age of a chicken house in the country is much older than 10 or even 15 years. To expect replacement during the next 18 years is not unreasonable.

Baer is an efficient producer who has always resisted the idea of welfare standards. His housing does not even live up to the current science that dictates 67 inches and no molting. To build 53 square-inch housing in 2010 with no thought toward the future trend of the country was a mistake.

In case you are thinking I'm the "wacko" from the left coast, I have been a dedicated Republican free market advocate since college. We are just facing the winds of change, rather than running away from them.

Editor's Note: Benson is president of JS West Milling Co. in Modesto, Calif.