Eggs are not a typical topic of discussion in BEEF magazine. But eggs and how they are produced recently had the full attention of beef and pork producers, as well as veterinarians.
The United Egg Producers (UEP), an umbrella organization encompassing five regional egg cooperatives,has long had an adversarial relationship with animal rights groups. About a year ago, however, UEP approached the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) about collaborating on federal legislation regarding housing for laying hens. Among other things, the legislation would specifically outline the exact pen space requirements, also called “enriched cage housing.”
At a superficial level, this may seem rational. But this seemingly rational legislation resulted in great dissension between poultry organizations, beef and pork production groups, veterinary organizations, and even animal rights groups themselves.
In the end, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendment (S. 3239) wasn’t attached to the Senate version of the farm bill. And beef and pork producer and veterinary groups were instrumental in that. But the measure is very likely to be introduced as an amendment to the House version of the farm bill.
When the measure failed in the Senate, however, the animal rights groups involved attempted to point their collective finger at the beef and pork groups, claiming we don’t care about animal welfare. This, of course, is ludicrous. If providing more room is in the best interest of the laying hen, I know of no one who would oppose it.
However, I know many people who oppose such federal legislation. These are hard-working farm families that care for the animals in their charge, and also care deeply about the consumers of their products.
The bottom line is that a federal mandate that prescribes how farm animals should be raised should deeply concern all of agriculture. A federal law isn’t necessary, and the success of the beef industry’s Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program is a case in point. Through the program, U.S. beef producers voluntarily responded to consumer concerns and made significant changes to enhance the quality of their product. BQA has been a resounding success story.
Why didn’t UEP put together a quality assurance program that required producers to provide this enriched cage housing? They did; it’s called UEP Certified (www.uepcertified.com).
However, it didn’t seem to help with pressure from animal rights groups. But when UEP tossed federal legislation into the pot, these groups jumped on the opportunity to get it on the books.
Of course, some animal rights groups were vehemently opposed to the legislation; they didn’t feel it went far enough. Still, UEP’s efforts to include animal rights groups in the passage of this mandate gave UEP a reprieve from assaults from such groups, as well as lending legitimacy to these same groups.
Producing safe, wholesome food is a tremendously gratifying endeavor for livestock producers. And agriculture has proven that it is responsive to consumer demands.
There are two primary reasons to alter how we produce food:
• The consumer asks for it.
• Science supports the change.
As it stands currently, consumers are blessed with the choice of a wide variety of food choices and how those foods are raised. And this has been done without federal legislation.
The science of animal welfare is ever-evolving. It will require an act of Congress to legislate how animals are to be raised. And if somewhere down the road, new science contradicts the federal legislation, it would take another act of Congress to change it.
Food producers can be much more responsive to new developments when their progress isn’t impeded by federal mandates. A federally legislated approach to animal well-being just doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when we know that science will dictate change in the future.
Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is director of animal health for Cattle Empire, LLC, of Satanta, KS. He can be reached at [email protected].