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In Search of More Elbow Room for Chickens in PA

July 11, 2011

WASHINGTON - When it comes to the age-old question: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?", two national groups are pulling for the chicken. United Egg Producers and The Humane Society of the United States are joining forces in an unlikely partnership to ask Congress for new federal standards for all commercial egg producers. The proposed legislation would require that conventional hen cages be phased out and replaced with cages that give each hen almost double the space they generally have now.

Currently, most hens get about 67 square inches in which to live their entire lives, says Paul Shapiro, spokesman for The Humane Society of the United States. That's less space than a letter-sized piece of paper.

"An increasing number of people are really starting to think about where our food comes from, and when it comes to eggs, unfortunately, the situation is just not that pretty. It's not 'Old MacDonald's Farm' out there; it's, in fact, hundreds of millions of birds which are confined in very cramped cages where they're unable even to spread their wings."

Mitch Head is the spokesperson for United Egg Producers, a national cooperative of farmers. His group represents about 80 percent of the nation's egg producers, and he says a vast majority of them are supportive of a national standard.

"I think that they are as concerned about animal welfare and providing eggs and doing it in a reasonable way."

Head says many farmers have made improvements over the past ten years, such as doubling the amount of space for egg-laying hens. The proposal between his group and the Humane Society would improve upon that, and also give hens perches and scratching areas.

"I think consumers will have greater confidence that the eggs that they'll be buying are produced in a proper and humane way, and that they'll be able to continue to have a choice in the marketplace of the types of eggs that they like to buy, and have a supply of eggs at a reasonable price."

The proposal by the two groups would prohibit egg producers from withholding feed or water to extend the laying cycle, and prohibit excessive ammonia in henhouses. It would also mandate labeling on all egg cartons to inform consumers on the origin of the contents. Such labels might indicate, for example: cage-free, free-range, or eggs from caged hens.

Poultry science experts at Penn State say there are advantages to keeping hens in cages while allowing them more room. Free range eggs cost more than double what eggs from caged hens cost. Also, keeping hens in cages allows farmers to better control waste than can be done with free range birds.

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - PA