The laying hen welfare agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States remained the hot topic of discussion throughout the UEP’s annual convention in Tucson, Ariz. While support for the agreement among UEP members at the convention was not unanimous, a clear majority appeared to be in favor of the compromise deal struck with the HSUS. At the convention, plans were laid out for egg producers to lobby key agriculture committee members in both houses of Congress as the crafting of the legislation based on the agreement nears completion.

As of the first week of October, the draft legislation was not yet complete. According to statements made during the convention, UEP representatives were still trying to negotiate a timeline change with the HSUS in order to give producers, who supply eggs for California, more time than the current January 1, 2015, deadline for converting operations.

Will the transition be disruptive?   

During a discussion among committee members at the animal welfare committee meeting, the question of whether the U.S. industry will wait until the last minute to transition to enriched colonies from conventional cages was raised. The concern expressed was that the U.S. might find itself in a similar position as the EU does with its January 2012 deadline looming for moving out of conventional cages with producers in some EU countries making little progress to transition to alternative housing.

If we assume that the UEP-HSUS agreement is followed by the industry, whether enacted as legislation or not, the transition of cage square footage from conventional to enrichable can be estimated over time. I have decided to take a conservative approach with this analysis. We can assume caged housing in the U.S. exists at this time for 300 million layers, with 80% of this at the UEP Certified density of 67 square inches per bird and the other 20% at 50 square inches per bird. All hens are assumed to be white, existing enrichable cages and non-cage production are not included, and the enactment date is assumed to be January 1, 2013.

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Based on conversations with cage manufacturers, existing conventional cages are assumed to have a useful life of 25 years and an equal number are assumed to be replaced each year, 4% of the original total (see table). From four years after enactment and on, birds will be housed at the same density whether in enrichable or conventional cages as per the agreement. This minimizes the economic incentive to not retire cages. Producers for the California market are assumed to have the same transition timeline as those in the rest of the country.

Enriched cages added to reduce density   

These assumptions give us a starting point of 132.5 million square feet of floor space in conventional cages and no enrichable cages. The cage densities called for in the agreement can be used to estimate the amount of enrichable space that would need to be added to make up for the additional space given birds in existing cages and keep housing available for 300 million layers. According to the agreement, all new cages added are enrichable. Six years after enactment of the agreement, almost half of all hens are in enrichable cages. On December 31, 2029, 18% of the industry’s total cage space would be in conventional cages, and these would still be considered to have some useful life but would need to be retired.

If egg producers for the California market follow a more aggressive timeline for conversion to enrichable cages, then less than 18% of the industry’s total cage space would be in conventional cages at the end of 2029. It appears that the industry might have a relatively smooth transition to enriched colonies if the agreement is enacted.