Dominating discussions at the United Egg Producers (UEP) annual legislative meeting was one topic: the ballot initiative on cages that will happen in California this November. Animal rights activists have managed to obtain the required number of signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot that would essentially end the use of cages for layers in that state within a few years.
Speakers discussed throughout the UEP meetings that passage of this referendum would be a major blow to the U.S. egg industry. In the past, the egg industry has been successful in fending off efforts by activists to create this type of political maneuvering to disrupt the way eggs are produced. The California ballot will be the first time the issue has gone to voters. In previous attempts, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has tried and been defeated to put it on the ballot in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Arizona and Delaware. HSUS is now trying now to establish legislation in Colorado and Washington state.
UEP and the industry have enlisted the services of the UEP public relations firm, Golin Harris, to help address the issue. It is estimated up to $50 million will be needed to successfully fight this issue. Many organizations--as well as individuals--are contributing to this cause. Producers have formed the Public Awareness Project Committee specifically for this reason and will be meeting regularly to work on it. UEP Chairman Gary West, himself a California egg producer, emphasized the fact there are only five months remaining until the vote on the referendum.
At the Board of Directors meeting, Dolph Baker, Chairman of the Public Awareness Project, spoke of the need to raise money fast and get to work on educating the voters. European problems that resulted from a similar ban on cages were again pointed out and it was discussed that there are disruptions in the European egg industry that will not be solved or go away.
Pleas for funds were also made by Debbie Murdock, head of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association (PEPA), and Kurt Allen, current chairman of that organization. Generous pledges have been coming from many different sources throughout the industry and many more are expected. Gene Gregory, president and CEO of UEP, summed up this major industry concern by stating that HSUS has never faced such a concerted effort by anyone like the egg industry in the United States. The industry must continue the "must win" attitude, he said. It is not entirely about the California egg business, Gregory added but about the industry's national survival.
American Humane Association
During the Animal Welfare Committee meeting, it was announced that a working relationship has been established between UEP and the American Humane Association (AHA). The Denver-based AHA, established 131 years ago, is dedicated to protecting both children and animals. AHA also has animal welfare audits and UEP will recognize them, with some additional criteria, as meeting UEP science-based standards.
Actually, the AHA participated in the original UEP science-based guideline discussions in the late 1990s. Gene Gregory commented that UEP is pleased to be working again with AHA and regards them as one of the most credible animal welfare organizations in the country.
Consultant Tom Hebert, executive vice president, Ogilvy Government Relations and UEP environmental consultant, and Chad Gregory, UEP executive vice president, outlined the progress being made on environmental projects. The National Air Emissions Monitoring Study through the Purdue Ag Air Quality Lab is progressing and scientists are studying egg, pork, chicken and milk operations throughout the country. A final report is due at the end of 2009. Several other issues were discussed at the environmental meeting and later reported at the board of directors meeting. Also, rules and regulations are expected in the future concerning rodenticides, air pollution, climate change and other environmental issues.
In addition to the fund-raising efforts and the fight that is coming soon in the California initiative, many other concerns were brought to the attention of the UEP Board. Mark Oldenkamp, Chairman of the Animal Welfare Committee, discussed the self-assessment documents that producers of non-cage layers are currently required to submit by UEP. Cage-free production is not yet governed by guidelines, but this type of production has proven to be variable in space allocation and the self-assessment will help to determine what is needed for compliance to the UEP Guidelines.
Cliff Lillywhite, Food Safety Committee chairman, again brought up the California initiative. He reminded the group that food safety should be an important part of the educational process for California voters. The way eggs are currently produced is the best method to keep them safe, he said, and any changes could create problems. In addition, the committee encouraged producers to participate in the USDA's LPAI (low pathogenicity avian influenza) Plan for prevention of avian influenza.
During discussion and commentary at the UEP meeting It was stated that the Farm Bill is not generally negative to the egg industry. Many of the suggestions made by the egg industry were approved and are part of the bill.
Other issues from the Government Relations Committee include ethanol pros and cons, food safety rules proposed, school lunch and breakfast programs and the California referendum situation. It was approved that UEP support AEB's recommendation that the assessment rate be raised to 15 cents per case.
Four position papers were developed by UEP and were taken by producers to their legislators on Capitol Hill:
1. Biofuels policy hurts egg producers. UEP advocates change in ethanol policy and resulting food price increases. The paper points out the increasing cost of corn and soybean meal and how it affects the cost of egg output.
2. Preparations for HPAI. Ask Congress to support efforts by the industry to include their science-based plans for prevention and outbreak preparation in the USDA plan.
3. Environmental issues. Oppose legislation that would expand EPA's authority. Support of EPA's proposed rule saying poultry and livestock structures do not have to report ammonia release. Oppose efforts to reverse it legislatively.
4. Immigration Reform. Encourage Congress to pass legislation to secure America's borders. Be sure agriculture plays an important role in formulating a workable program. Support comprehensive immigration reform, as agriculture needs it.