Lobbying Congress to amend the 2012 Farm Bill to include the language of the hen welfare agreement can be considered a “push” strategy engaged in by both the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. The United Egg Producers is also using a “pull” strategy to educate customers, media outlets and ultimately consumers of the benefits of the hen welfare agreement. The hope is that an informed customer base and consumers will express their desires to Congress, and this will help pull the legislation through.

The Animal Welfare Conference hosted by GolinHarris, the United Egg Producers’ public relations firm, in New York for a small group of customers and media outlets in July represents one part of the pull strategy. Representatives from two retail egg sellers, Super Value and Union Market, were joined by employees of foodservice companies, CKE Restaurants (the parent company of Hardees and Carl’s Jr.), Quiznos and the Cheesecake Factory. Also in the audience were representatives from a few print and online media companies.

The science behind welfare guidelines  

The United Egg Producers animal welfare guidelines were drafted by its scientific advisory committee and approved by the board of directors in 2000. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the guidelines was that the space allotted per hen was increased to 67 square inches over a period of five years.

Mark Oldenkamp, chairman of the United Egg Producers animal welfare committee and vice president of the Northwest operations for Valley Fresh Foods Inc., said that when the UEP Certified animal welfare guidelines were first implemented and hens were given more space in the conventional cages, the birds responded with significantly better performance than he expected. Flocks housed at lower cage densities had lower mortality rates and higher rates of egg production. He said, “The performance was far better than I ever dreamed would happen.” Commenting on the process that the scientific advisory committee used to develop the initial animal welfare standard, Oldenkamp said, “I think that the scientists got it right.”

The initial data for the few flocks housed in enriched colonies in the U.S. are showing improved performance over hens housed in conventional cages at 67 square inches per bird, Oldenkamp reported. The expectation is that this improved bird performance will offset some of the cost associated with the new housing systems and the additional square footage allotted for each hen.

Opposition within agriculture  

Chad Gregory, senior vice president, United Egg Producers, said that the strongest opposition to the hen welfare legislation has come from other agriculture groups. “Our only opposition is the pork industry, the farm bureau and the beef industry, because they think they are next,” he said.

Gregory said that he accepted invitations to speak to several pork producer groups. “I have said to every one of them, do you honestly think that if you kill our egg bill that your gestation crate issues will just go away? You were number one on the Humane Society of the United States' target list ten years ago, and you are still number one on their list,” he said.

Gregory cited a statement attributed to Dave Warner, director of communications, National Pork Producers Council, in a National Journal article as an example of how out of touch some animal agriculture groups are from their consumers. In the article, Warner was quoted as saying, "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.... The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that's at an all-time high." The National Pork Producers Council has responded to the National Journal article by stating that the quotes attributed to Warner do not reflect the organization’s views.

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Gregory questioned whether pork producers and other animal agriculture groups were really listening to consumers on animal welfare issues. He said, “We heard loud and clear that consumers don’t think that a conventional cage the size of this podium for two years for a chicken to move around in is enough. It isn’t enough. It’s ridiculous. We should have considered these things before, but thankfully the activists have forced us to go down this trail. I say thankfully, because in about five years we are going to say thank God they did. We are going to have a really positive story to tell.”

Status of the legislation  

“Egg farmers wrote this bill because this is what egg farmers need and want to survive,” Gregory said. He said that the House version of the Farm Bill has been passed by the House agricultural committee, but the House had not debated or voted on the Farm Bill prior to its summer recess. The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States will continue lobbying Congress to get the amendment added to the House version of the 2012 Farm Bill. After this, the amendment would need to be added to Senate version of the Farm Bill through the conference committee process where the House and Senate versions of the bill will be reconciled.

Gauging consumer acceptance  

Mark Dvorak, executive director, GolinHarris, reported on a series of surveys conducted to evaluate the acceptability of enriched cages as an alternative to conventional cage housing for layers. Two online surveys with 1,000 participants each were conducted in December of 2011 and January of 2012. Survey participants were registered voters randomly selected from individuals in survey panels.

Consumers were asked if they preferred that hens be housed in conventional or enriched cages. A total of 76 percent of survey participants said they preferred enriched cages (with 44 percent and 32 percent saying that they definitely preferred and somewhat preferred, respectively, enriched cages.) Only 6 percent of consumers said that they preferred conventional cages (3 percent somewhat preferred and 3 percent definitely preferred conventional cages). Nineteen percent of consumers in the survey said that they had no preference for how hens were housed.

Consumers were asked to identify the two most important advantages of enriched cages over conventional cages. Eighty percent of consumers identified the fact that hens were allotted almost twice as much space in enriched cages as the most important advantage of enriched cages. Just over half of consumers (51 percent) identified the nesting area as an important advantage for enriched cages. The scratching area and perches were only identified as important advantages by 10 and 8 percent of consumers, respectively.

There is little doubt that the Humane Society of the United States’ public relations campaigns have an impact on consumers. They were asked, “If you could only tell people that two organizations support the new enriched cage, which two would you choose? Forty five percent of consumers chose the Humane Society of the United States and 39 percent named the United Egg Producers (see Table 1).

Consumers seemed to respond positively when told that the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States worked together to develop a national standard for housing laying hens and a transition period for enacting the changes (see Table 2). Almost 60 percent of consumers surveyed said that this partnership would make them more supportive of enriched cages. Almost two thirds of the consumers surveyed said that they would support federal legislation calling for a transition from conventional to enriched cages for housing hens (see Table 3).

GolinHarris also conducted in-person interviews with attendees at the 2012 National Grocers Association and Food Marketing Institute shows and asked questions pertaining to the hen welfare legislation. A majority of survey respondents at both shows said that they would support federal legislation leading to the transition from conventional cages to enriched cages for housing hens (see Table 4). Attendees surveyed at the two shows very strongly supported federal legislation dictating appropriate housing for hens over individual states setting their own standards. Dvorak said, “No matter how you pose the question, food retail industry professionals support national legislation and a single national standard for enriched cages.”