they've heard from almost everyone but the Easter Bunny on this one -- and Agriculture Department officials now must decide whether they want to admit Uncle Sam to the nation's henhouses.
At issue is a federal marketing order proposed by some of the country's largest producers of eggs. It would allow the industry to regulate the flow of eggs to market and to eliminate egg surpluses by sending surplus hens to slaughter -- a step that some call "henocide."
The proposal is not going over lightly.
The United Egg Producers, a trade group that has lobbied for the order, says it is vital to the future of an industry bedeviled by falling consumption. But many smaller producers, bakers, restauranteurs and consumerists say it is a veiled move to create a barnyard OPEC that would scramble markets and drive up prices.
USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has held regional hearings on the proposal and heard a symphony of pros and cons. According to AMS chief James C. Handley, the department will decide this month whether to allow the egg marketing order process to go forward.
Although the Reagan administration does not like the idea (hard boiled Justice Department antitrust lawyers argued vehemently against it at the hearings), Handley said that USDA is uncertain which way it will go.
But even if USDA approved the order, the last word would be up to the egg producers. By nationwide referendum, they would vote on the proposition, which could force them to shell out up to 2 cents per dozen for egg research and promotion and to finance the purchase of hens to reduce egg production.
The order, if approved, also would create a national board of producers empowered to decide when eggs were in surplus and to determine how many hens would be sent to the soup factory to keep egg supplies in line with demand.
Agricultural marketing orders, a relic of the New Deal era, were created to help farmers get better prices by limiting the marketing of their products to consumers. Some of the 48 orders, which cover such things as hops, spearmint, citrus and vegetables, regulate research and promotion. Others regulate production and marketing volume.
Administration moves in 1981 and 1982 to wipe out some of the orders, on the ground that they violated free-market principles, created so much controversy that Congress banned the Office of Management and Budget from reviewing them and limited USDA's powers to end them.
USDA's hearings and invitation to public comment apparently did little to resolve the major disputes over the egg marketing order. More than 4,000 pages of testimony and scores of letters were produced.
The UEP and its allies complained bitterly about the presence of Justice Department antitrust lawyers at the hearings, accusing them of intimidating witnesses and stalling proceedings. UEP called Justice's efforts "a blatant usurpation of power from the Department of Agriculture."
"If this is the American process, shame on it," said Gerald L. Pitt of the Illinois Egg Market Development Council, pecking at Justice's tactics.
R.K. Looper, president of Cal-Maine Foods Inc. of Jackson, Miss., urged the USDA to "help us protect our rights, which are being attacked from all quarters -- from the Department of Justice to Congress itself." Looper's comments were worded identically with dozens of statements by other UEP backers.
But some opponents of the marketing order had equal difficulty in being original, although they didn't think the plan was what it was cracked up to be. Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) submitted nearly identical statements on behalf of the Arkansas Poultry Federation, warning that the order "will eventually result in higher egg prices for consumers."
Ray Coleman, an egg producer from Webster, Ky., may have been the most succinct. "This marketing order is not for the birds or the people of the poultry industry," he said.