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."
The United Egg Association PAC, the industry's main political action committee, has donated about $1.1 million to members of Congress during the past decade, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group.
The source of the current outbreak is unclear, but the Food and Drug Administration has identified health and sanitation problems at the two Iowa farms.
Battery cages, sometimes stacked to the ceiling in warehouses, can hold up to a dozen hens each and are often too small to allow the birds to spread their wings or even turn around. Animal rights activists point to studies showing that salmonella infection rates are up to 20 times higher in caged facilities.
But some researchers say that the causal connection is unclear and that any increased risk might have more to do with the sheer scale of the operations, which often involve 1 million hens or more at one location. Industry groups and companies argue that such "egg housing systems" are cleaner than "free-range" farms because the chickens are kept away from rodents, feces and other potential sources of infection.
In California, the egg industry and other agribusiness groups spent nearly $9 million in an attempt to head off that state's animal-welfare initiative, which requires that egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant sows be able to "lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely" while in confinement. In July, the restrictions were extended to producers of all whole eggs sold in the state, although there is disagreement about whether larger cages would be allowed.
One of the leading opponents of the California initiative was Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the Iowa egg producer at the center of the current outbreak. Two companies DeCoster owns, Wright County Egg in Iowa and Quality Egg of New England, contributed $200,000 to the effort. Hillandale Farms, which has close ties to DeCoster, gave $96,000, records show.
DeCoster spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell referred questions about battery cages to the egg producers' group.
Two California lawmakers, Reps. Diane Watson (D) and Elton Gallegly (R), have introduced a bill that would bar the federal government from buying eggs produced in battery-cage facilities. The measure, which has about three dozen co-sponsors, has been referred to the House Agriculture and government reform committees.
Worried about the prospect, farm interests and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) negotiated a last-minute deal with the Humane Society that prevents the use of battery cages at any egg farms that begin operating after the end of the year.
The agreement throws into doubt the future of a proposed egg facility in the state that would be home to 6 million chickens and boost Ohio's total egg production by 20 percent.
Marion Nestle, a food-safety expert at New York University, said that restrictions on battery cages are good for the health of animals but added that many free-range facilities are also plagued with crowding and other problems. She said the egg industry will continue to oppose new restrictions for simple reasons of economics.
"Why would they want to change the way they're doing things?" asked Nestle, the author of books including "What to Eat" and "Food Politics." "It's easy to control, easy to manage and a great way to produce cheap eggs. That's the reality of why they do it this way."
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.