Business

States play game of chicken over eggs

Cage-free trend spurs Iowa politicians into action

U.S. Rep. Steve King talks during a May 13, 2017, reception by the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. Earlier this month, King introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would block states from regulating agricultural products that also are produced in other states — a clear shot at cage-free-egg laws. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
U.S. Rep. Steve King talks during a May 13, 2017, reception by the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. Earlier this month, King introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would block states from regulating agricultural products that also are produced in other states — a clear shot at cage-free-egg laws. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Dennis Bowden has raised chickens in Waldoboro, Maine, nearly his whole life. For more than 40 years, he raised the chickens in cages. Then four years ago, when he turned 65, he cut down the size of his flock and went cage-free.

The decision to switch was Bowden’s alone, but around the country many politicians have taken sides on the issue of penning hens, hoping either to require egg producers to go cage-free or to protect conventional producers by requiring stores stock their eggs.

Eggs are a staple of the American diet, with 88 billion table eggs produced in 2016. Egg consumption is growing, and the quality of life of the hens that lay the eggs has become an issue not just for animal welfare groups but also for many consumers. Although cage-free hens represent 16 percent of U.S. chickens, their share of the flock grew by a third from 2016 to 2017, and the egg industry and its supporters are noticing.

When California and Massachusetts enacted laws requiring that eggs produced and sold there be raised cage-free, 13 states including some of the nation’s largest egg producers sued, saying the laws violated the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Iowa, the top egg-producing state in the country, went further and enacted House File 2408 to protect its conventional, caged-chicken industry. The law, signed last month by Gov. Kim Reynolds, requires any grocer participating in the federal food program for low-income mothers, infants and children, known as WIC, to sell conventional eggs if it sells cage-free options.

And last week, U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Northwest Iowa Republican, introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would block states from regulating agricultural products that also are produced in other states — a clear shot at cage-free-egg laws.

The tension comes as many restaurants and retailers say they are going cage-free — McDonald’s and Kellogg’s, for example, plan to do so by 2025. Ohio, Oregon and Washington have banned traditional cages, while this year, bills in Rhode Island and Michigan would require cage-free production and sales.

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Conventional egg producers outside those states fear that as more egg-importing states enact such laws, they, too, will be required to go cage-free, costing them about $40 a bird to convert their facilities.

The Humane Society of the United States, which was behind the ballot measures approved in Massachusetts and California as well as the bill in Rhode Island, said that’s the goal.

“What we hope to achieve is that there is no place for caged hens to be sold anywhere,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection with the society.

Consumer Conundrum

Cage-free doesn’t mean chickens frolicking through pastures. The most common scenario is a big barn with thousands of chickens able to fly and move about freely, even if they are packed in. They may stay inside their entire lives. It’s not chicken utopia, Balk said, but it does give them some space.

Yet having that many chickens in one space can be dangerous, too. Pecking order is not just an expression The birds seek to create a hierarchy among those they share a space with.

Producers who use cages say birds each have about the space of an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper but can move around alongside six or seven other chicken cage-mates, according to a spokesman for the National Association of Egg Farmers, Ken Klippen.

Iowa’s move to protect conventional egg producers was supported by the industry. But the bill was narrowed considerably after grocers expressed concern, and lawmakers eventually limited the restrictions to grocers that serve the more than 60,000 WIC participants.

“We want the market to dictate, and the consumers’ choice to dictate, what you put on the shelf,” said Michelle Hurd, the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s president. “We were concerned it sets a precedent for industry to use the law to force stores to carry their type of product.”

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Cage-free-egg laws appear to be popular with consumers — at least the ones who voted for them. Ballot measures were approved by wide margins in California, with 64 percent of the vote, and in Massachusetts, with 78 percent. This happened despite consumers in both states overwhelmingly buying conventional eggs.

“I call it a vote by paradox,” said Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in Indiana.

“These cage-free eggs were available in the grocery store, and, at the time, less than 10 percent of market share was cage-free. Why people banned something they were routinely buying in a grocery store, I don’t know,” he said.

Only California’s law has been fully phased in so the impacts have been the most widely studied.

Lusk estimated the number of eggs produced in the state since the law was enacted was a third lower than it otherwise would have been. In response, stores in the state initially imported more eggs from other states. Shortly after the new law took effect, the price of eggs increased by more than a third.

Some economists doubt the industry can produce enough cage-free eggs to meet future demand. To do so, three-quarters of the nation’s 320 million birds would have to go cage-free.

At the same time, some egg producers have paused plans to expand cage-free production because they are not experiencing enough demand.

Happier Hens, Harder-Working Farmers

Cage-free eggs aren’t just more expensive because farmers must convert their facilities. They require more work, too.

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When Bowden in Maine went cage-free, he went from a flock of more than 33,000 hens down to 3,000. But he had to increase his employees from five to eight to help with the extra work.

Now owners have to collect eggs thrice a day, and the shells get dirtier because they can be laid indiscriminately.

Still, Bowden thinks his chickens are happier. “It’s pretty hard to gauge,” he said. “We can’t really get them to vote.”

Nonetheless, Bowden doesn’t think cage-free should be mandatory.

“I think it should be an issue of the person votes when they buy the eggs,” he said. “Does he want to pay $5 a dozen for eggs or $2 a dozen? Poor people can’t afford to buy eggs if they’re all cage-free.”

That’s what legislators in Iowa argued, too.

“It’s not just about farmers versus animal rights,” said Rep. Lee Hein, a Republican who chairs the Agriculture Committee. “It’s about people having access to affordable protein.”

Stateline is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and is distributed by Reuters,

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