The Influence Industry: New egg lobby heats debate over hen-house legislation

June 20, 2012

Last summer, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States agreed on legislation that would set national standards for the treatment of laying hens, setting aside years of enmity over the issue.

But the development did not sit well with Amon Baer, an egg farmer and pork producer in Minnesota who says he decided to set up his own Washington lobbying group in response.

The group, dubbed Egg Farmers of America, has joined with much larger agribusiness organizations in mounting strong opposition to the proposed egg legislation, which is part of the broader debate over a farm bill now convulsing Congress. The debate has pitted the egg industry’s largest lobbying group against other agricultural interests, as well as producing a split within the egg industry itself.

Under the proposal, the average size of cages for laying hens would be doubled and new federal standards would be imposed for hygiene, cage-free labeling and other measures. Although the proposal appears stalled in the Senate, backers are hoping for approval in the House.

The Humane Society views the deal as an important move forward in the treatment of poultry, while the egg producers group favors the legislation in part because it would do away with a confusing patchwork of state-by-state standards.

But Baer said his organization has dozens of members, primarily in the upper Midwest, who would be financially devastated by new requirements in the legislation. Large agribusiness groups such as the Farm Bureau and the National Pork Producers Council also oppose the bill because they fear it could set a precedent for tougher federal regulation of their industries.

“We just feel we’re not represented by UEP,” said Baer, who is a UEP board member. “They’re not representing the interests of mid-size and smaller producers.”

Animal-welfare advocates, meanwhile, accuse Baer’s Egg Farmers of America of acting as a Trojan horse for the pork industry and other agribusiness interests firmly opposed to tougher federal regulations.

Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society, said the new egg group has helped provide cover for the meat industry and other lobbying groups with little direct interest in the egg business.

“They had to fabricate this organization in order to make it appear that there is egg industry opposition, when in reality the majority of egg producers support this legislation,” Shapiro said. “Because the bill doesn’t affect cattle or pigs, they’ve had a hard time finding sympathy for their arguments.”

The lobbying firm hired by the Egg Farmers of America, the Russell Group of Arlington, also represents the National Pork Producers Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, Hormel and many other large agribusiness interests, according to lobbying records. Baer’s group has paid Russell $70,000 for lobbying since the fourth quarter of last year, the records show.

Tyson Redpath, a lobbyist at Russell, said there was “absolutely no connection” between the Egg Farmers of America and his firm’s other clients. He said Baer approached the firm after deciding to form his organization.

“It’s an ad-hoc coalition of small- and medium-sized egg farmers who don’t feel that the [United] Egg Producers represent their interests,” Redpath said. “They are using their right to advocate before Congress their opposition to this agreement, and opposition to federally legislating hen housing standards nationwide.”

Dave Warner, a spokesman for the pork producers lobby, said the council played no role in forming the egg farmers group but has joined sides to oppose the hen treatment legislation.

United Egg Producers, based in Alpharetta, Ga., is a cooperative lobbying group that says its members account for 88 percent of the 80 billion eggs produced in the United States each year. The group had long opposed mandated cage sizes and other limits, and has spent years attempting to fend off state-level regulations around the country.

Fed up with fighting, and sometimes losing, those state-by-state battles, the group decided to team up with the Humane Society on a national compromise last year. The resulting agreement has put the group at odds with much of the rest of the agribusiness industry, which is firmly opposed to additional federal regulations.

Mitch Head, a spokesman for the United Egg Producers, dismissed the Egg Farmers of America as “a handful of farmers somewhere” who don’t represent the interests of most of the industry.

“We had never heard of them until this year,” he said. “They just sort of came out of nowhere.”

For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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