Legislation that would delay the implementation of cage-free confinement standards for egg-laying hens by more than five years moved out of a Senate committee 4-1 this week. SB 0660 pushes the cage-free standards back to October 12, 2025, as opposed to April 1, 2020.

Some fear that the 2020 date does not properly align with the date set by restaurants and grocery chains to make the transition to selling only cage-free eggs and their products. "The majority of egg buyers have embraced a commitment to 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2025. This leaves a five-year gap between current law and the five-year commitment. This gap would have a major disruptive impact on Michigan's egg industry,” said Meekhof legislative director Jennifer Merchant said according to Michigan Information and Research Service (MIRS).

Sen. Darwin Booher was the only committee member to vote against the bill, not because he is opposed to delaying the date, but because he is against the whole idea of mandatory cage-free egg standards. Booher also voted against the original bill in 2009.

"I think it sets a bad precedent for all animals we raise in Michigan. I know of no science that tells me eggs produced under a cage-free standard are any safer, or taste any better. Meanwhile, here we are forcing our egg industry to spend an additional $50 million to comply with this," Booher said to MIRS.

Questioning the transition to cage free by 2025

A national transition to cage free by 2025 is something other industry leaders have already questioned at a much larger level. Larry Sadler, Ph.D., vice president of animal welfare for United Egg Producers (UEP), discussed the commitment of companies to sell cage-free eggs by a certain future date at the 2017 Live Production, Welfare and Biosecurity Convention in September in Nashville, Tennessee.

When talking about a national level, “229 grocery companies or food companies have made cage-free commitments,” Sadler said. 

If those companies keep their commitment, that would mean 223 million layers would need to be cage-free by 2025. That would cost industry producers $10 billion to convert housing systems currently used in the U.S. “This change may not be reasonable with only seven years to get there,” said Sadler.

Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, wrote a letter to the Michigan committee that objected the bill, based on the same thoughts that caused Booher to oppose it.

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Klippen argued in the letter that egg producers already know how to minimize stress of birds in order to maximize efficiency by managing mortality, cost, production and quality. "What we do know, is that [neither] the 2009 Michigan standard nor eggs produced in a 'cage-free' environment are scientifically based in meeting these goals. They are based on what extreme animal rights groups want the science to be and there is a big difference between what science is, and what extremists want it to be," Klippen said.

MIRS report addressed that Klippen referred to a Penn State University Study showing that cage-free practices lead to an increase in Salmonella pathogenic bacteria from backyard flocks of chickens on the ground.

Customer perception is the driving force behind cage-free eggs.

At the same conference as Sadler in September, Kelli Jones, DVM, said, “We didn’t put birds in cages for no reason.” Jones discussed the cost of cage-free eggs for producers and consumers from not only a production standpoint but also from a financial stance.

Customer perception is the driving force behind cage-free eggs; however, there may be some lack of understanding concerning what this really means, she explained.

“The reason we put birds in cages is because as producers we wanted clean and unbroken eggs,” Jones said. Producers also wanted to ensure the best animal welfare practices to their birds.

“The level of egg production and clean eggs suffers when you take birds out of cages,” said Jones. There are welfare concerns. There are publications after publications identifying these concerns regarding the cage-free process, she added when talking about cage-free transition in general.

The Michigan Farm Bureau opposes the legislation. The Michigan Agri-Business Association and Michigan Allied Poultry Industries supports it.

Other implications of SB 0660

According to a release from MIRS, SB 0660 would also enforce other rules. It would prohibit a business owner or operator from selling an egg for human consumption if the management knew or should have known that the egg was produced by an egg-laying hen that was confined in violation of the animal confinement standards, beginning October 12, 2025. It would also allow the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development or the Attorney General to bring a civil action to restrain an act or practice in violation of proposed prohibition and Require the Department, by October 12, 2023, to promulgate rules to implement the proposed provisions. The bill would take effect 90 days after its enactment.