Egg industry alarmed about efforts to limit cage sizes

Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, says the Food and Drug Administration has done a good job handling a massive egg recall, but adds the agency needs more authority to prevent outbreaks. (Aug. 23)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; 10:36 PM

Even before the recent salmonella outbreak, the nation's egg industry was struggling to fend off another threat: allegations that it was cruel to chickens.

Egg producers are alarmed by efforts to ban small cages for hens, a movement that has gained momentum in an increasing number of states.

The 550 million eggs recalled in connection with the salmonella contamination came from hens housed in industrial-style "battery cages," in which birds are crammed against one another in a long battery of wire enclosures.

The cages are common throughout the industry but have been increasingly targeted by animal welfare groups as inhumane and unsanitary. But major egg producers say switching to cage-free methods would do little to improve safety and would add to the price of eggs.

Cage-free eggs commonly cost about twice as much as those produced by caged hens. The industry says even if cage-free eggs were mass-produced, the average cost per dozen still would be about 25 percent higher.

In California, new legislation spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States will eliminate the use of conventional battery cages starting in 2015. Companies linked to the DeCoster family of Iowa, which is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, helped fund a $9 million effort to defeat the measure, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed into law this summer.

Michigan has also adopted cage limits, which will take effect in 2019, while less-stringent regulations have been approved in several other states. Ohio announced an agreement between animal rights activists and industry groups last month that will bar new battery-cage facilities but exempt current operators.

Many fast-food restaurants, such as Burger King and Subway, are also increasing their use of cage-free eggs, while Compass Group, the world's largest food-service provider, now uses them exclusively.

"The cage-free movement is not only about providing a humane environment for animals," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the society's End Factory Farming campaign. "There is also a strong food-safety component as well."

But the United Egg Producers, the U.S. industry's top lobbying group, says there is no difference in safety between eggs produced by caged or free-range hens. The cooperative-style organization, based in Alpharetta, Ga., represents companies that provide about 85 percent of the 80 billion eggs produced in the United States each year.

Group spokesman Mitch Head said measures to limit or outlaw the use of battery cages are based on emotions and flawed readings of scientific evidence. He warned that banning such cages altogether would lead to a 25 percent increase in egg prices, or about 25 cents per dozen at the current Grade A retail average.

"We would prefer that this be worked out through the marketplace and based on science," Head said. "Instead, it's become a political and ballot-box issue. That makes us concerned."

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