About a decade ago a small group of animal advocates introduced a first-of-its-kind bill in the Illinois legislature to phase out the barren battery cages now used in the production of eggs—cages so small that most all of today’s hens cannot even stretch their wings. The bill was roundly defeated. The United Egg Producers (UEP) so strongly opposed the bill that UEP representative Gene Gregory refused to even discuss the bill with animal welfare leaders.
Yet on July 7 this past week, Gregory (now the President and CEO of the UEP) and the CEO of the nation’s largest animal welfare group, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), announced that UEP and HSUS will cooperate to pass federal legislation that will phase out those same barren battery cages and replace them with larger “enriched cages.” It’s a fundamental change in the landscape of US animal protection.
No federal law has ever protected farmed animals except during slaughter and farmed birds have been excluded from even this protection, so the HSUS-UEP proposal is animal welfare history in the making. It’s also a history I’ve watched unfold from a unique angle.
When Gregory came to the Illinois legislative session a decade ago to oppose the bill introduced by Illinois Humane PAC, the Humane PAC representative he met was with Farm Forward’s then-CEO, Steve Gross, my father. I remember Steve’s frustration: “Gregory shook my hand perfunctorily and then adopted the poultry industry’s longstanding, informal SOP [standard operating procedure] to refuse to dialog with animal welfare advocates.”
The credit for breaking this dysfunctional pattern goes in large measure to HSUS’s CEO, Wayne Pacelle, who opened dialog between the American public and the poultry industry. His achievement was only possible because campaigns led by HSUS and Farm Sanctuary—supported by a massive coalition of groups including Farm Forward—had passed a series of state-level laws (like the one that failed in Illinois a decade ago) banning aspects of the intensive confinement of animals. A series of state-level regulations threaten to groups like the UEP more than a single, uniform national law. It was just plain common sense for the UEP to negotiate.
As historic as this new dialog is, it remains only a small step forward at the level of pragmatic change: by analogy, if egg-laying hens previously were confined to a closet, under the proposed HSUS-UEP agreement they will be confined to a walk-in closet. This is a meaningful and important, but also a limited improvement. The enriched cage system still prevents birds from engaging in many of the basic life activities that, well, make a bird a bird: running, jumping, feeling the sun, flapping one’s wings. Even more importantly, the joint HSUS-UEP proposal has not opened a conversation—not yet—about the unhealthy genetics of the birds themselves, which I and many welfare experts, like poultry farmer Frank Reese, would argue is today’s biggest welfare problem in the poultry industry.
The industry’s intensive breeding techniques, which changed the genetics of laying hens, led to these birds being caged in the first place. When these intensive breeding techniques managed to double the numbers of eggs hens laid each year,1 they also genetically compromised the immune systems of the birds. The industry isolated birds in cages so that they would be less likely to transmit disease. Cages, enriched or not, are an attempt to mitigate welfare problems introduced by the Frankenstein genetics of today’s laying hens.
Scientific studies have shown that today’s egg-laying hens have not only inadequate immune systems,2 but also fragile skeletons that result in a constant stream of bone breakages, and previously rare tumors3 and reproductive diseases.4 Although industry and animal advocates understand that genetics are the root cause of great suffering, few are talking about genetics because we have been, not without reason, focused on issues of how these birds are raised.
As the proposed federal legislation is discussed in more detail Farm Forward will be urging both parties to listen to something Frank Reese likes to say, “if you change production practices, you change production practices but if you change genetics, you change the industry.” Now that producers and advocates have agreed change is needed, it is time to discuss the 800 pound gorilla in the barn: breeding “high-efficiency” but unhealthy animals. In the end, it is only by addressing the genetics question that we can truly move farming forward. —Aaron Gross, Founder and Chief Executive Officer
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