Government

Iowa bill a new tactic in debate over cage-free eggs

A Hy-Line Brown chicken is shown May 10, 2016, at the cage-free Farmers Hen House facility in rural Kalona. A bill passed by both chambers in the Iowa Legislature calls for grocers selling specialty eggs like cage-free and organic to also offer conventional eggs. (The Gazette)
A Hy-Line Brown chicken is shown May 10, 2016, at the cage-free Farmers Hen House facility in rural Kalona. A bill passed by both chambers in the Iowa Legislature calls for grocers selling specialty eggs like cage-free and organic to also offer conventional eggs. (The Gazette)
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Companies from McDonald’s to Wal-Mart recently have flocked to cage-free eggs, fueling a national marketing boom for a product many think is more humane.

But in Iowa, the country’s largest egg-producing state, there are fears the trend has gone too far. And last week, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would require many grocery stores in the state to stock eggs from caged chickens — a move designed to stop retailers from phasing them out.

Although House File 2408 would apply only to the Iowa locations of stores that participate in a certain federal program, it’s intended to address a growing national dilemma.

The country’s largest grocery chains have committed to cage-free eggs, sending shock waves through the industry. But consumers aren’t buying the more expensive cage-free eggs at the clip that was expected.

Supporters of the bill argue animal welfare groups have shamed grocery stores into offering a product consumers don’t want. They have framed the legislation as a needed counterweight to welfare groups’ growing influence.

Those groups, on the other hand, have accused lawmakers of shilling for agribusiness interests.

“This is definitely one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in my years monitoring these sorts of bills,” said Cody Carlson, a staff attorney with the animal welfare group Mercy for Animals. “The idea of forcing private businesses to sell a specific product is pretty unprecedented.”

Democrats in the Iowa Senate, who are in the minority, agreed it was odd for Republicans to go against orthodoxy and impose more regulations on businesses.

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“I don’t think this is an area we need to be legislating,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

But Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the bill’s floor manager, called HF 2408 “a home run, game-winning bill” that will ensure stores that sell specialty eggs, such as cage-free and organic, also sell conventional eggs as a cost-effective product for Iowans.

The legislation would not literally force stores to sell conventional eggs — though people involved in drafting the bill say it eventually could have that effect.

As written, the legislation requires that stores carry conventional eggs if they participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.

That won’t have much immediate impact on retailers, said Michelle Hurd, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. Under current rules in Iowa and other states including California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, WIC recipients can use their benefits only on conventional eggs anyway. That means WIC retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and CVS are required to stock them.

But in recent years, those chains and dozens of others have promised to go cage-free within the next decade, following calls by consumers and animal welfare advocates. To fulfill those promises, stores will have to withdraw from the WIC program or persuade state agencies to change the rules for their WIC food packages.

That raises the possibility that, in many stores, conventional eggs soon no longer will be available. And that has worried lawmakers and farmers, said state Rep. Lee Hein, who chairs Iowa’s House Agriculture Committee.

The new bill was championed by a group called Iowans for Consumer Choice, which represents state egg producers, and endorsed by the Iowa Poultry Association.

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Hein said he fears that Iowa egg producers are being forced to convert to expensive cage-free systems, at a cost of $40 to $50 per hen. He also questions how low-income families will afford eggs if cage-free or free-range is the only option.

According to the Department of Agriculture, a dozen large, cage-free, Grade A eggs costs $2.35, while conventional eggs cost $1.47. The price gap appears to be taking a toll: In October, the country’s largest egg producer cut its cage-free output, citing low consumer demand. Producers and retailers have been forced to heavily discount the eggs to move them.

“Some of our larger grocery stores have basically bowed over to the animal rights groups and committed to going cage-free only by 2022 or 2025,” Hein said. “This is a response to those animal welfare activists who are forcing their agenda on consumers, and the consumer isn’t really having a say in it.”

Animal welfare groups dispute these claims, particularly the idea that cage-free eggs are too expensive for consumers or businesses.

That may be the case now, Carlson acknowledged. But as more producers go cage-free, the price of eggs will drop as a result of competition.

Activists also are adamant that retailers are going cage-free because consumers want it, not because activist groups have pressured them. Carlson argues a company such as McDonald’s would not make such a costly and difficult switch if it didn’t make good business sense.

“For years the factory farm lobby has opposed regulation on the basis that the market should decide what it wants,” Carlson said. “Now that the market’s deciding, the factory farm lobby doesn’t like the answer it’s gotten.”

Of course, Iowa isn’t the only state where lawmakers are intervening in the cage-free market.

A recently implemented law in California requires that all eggs sold in the state come from hens with room to turn around and stretch their wings. And Massachusetts has passed a similar measure. They, too, have faced criticisms that their policies manipulated producers and retailers.

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Hein said his state’s egg bill was not intended as a counterpoint to actions elsewhere. But he acknowledges that the factors influencing cage-free egg sales have moved far outside supply and demand.

“I’ll admit I’m for keeping regulation at a minimum,” he said. “But this is one that makes sense for consumers — and for animal agriculture in Iowa.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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