Even before the recent salmonella outbreak, America's egg industry was struggling to fend off another threat: allegations that it was cruel to chickens.
Egg producers are alarmed at efforts to ban small cages for hens, a movement that has gained momentum in an increasing number of states. The 550 million eggs recalled in connection with the salmonella contamination came from hens housed in industrial-style “battery cages,” in which birds are crammed against one another in a long battery of wire enclosures.
The cages are common throughout the industry but have been increasingly targeted by animal- welfare groups as inhumane and unsanitary. But major egg producers say switching to cagefree methods will do little to improve safety and will add to the cost of a dozen eggs.
Right now, cage-free eggs commonly cost about twice as much as those produced by caged hens. The industry says even if cage-free eggs were mass produced, the average cost per dozen still would be about 25 percent higher.
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In California, a new law spearheaded by the Humane Society will eliminate the use of conventional battery cages starting in 2015. Companies tied to the DeCoster family of Iowa, which is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, helped fund a $9 million effort to defeat the proposal, which was finalized by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer.
Michigan also has adopted cage limits to take effect in 2019, while less-stringent regulations have been approved in several other states. Ohio announced an agreement between animal-rights activists and industry groups last month that will bar new battery-cage facilities while exempting current operators.
Many fast food restaurants, such as Burger King and Subway, are increasing their use of cage-free eggs, while the world’s largest food service provider, Compass Group, has switched to them exclusively. In the European Union, egg farmers are phasing out conventional battery cages in favor of “enriched” caging systems that provide more space.
“The cage-free movement is not only about providing a humane environment for animals,” said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the society’s End Factory Farming campaign. “There is also a strong food-safety component as well.”
But the U.S. industry’s top lobbying group, the United Egg Producers, says there is no difference in egg safety between caged or free-range hens. The cooperative-style organization, based in Alpharetta, Ga., represents companies that provide about 85 percent of the 80 billion eggs produced in the United States each year.
Group spokesman Mitch Head said measures to limit or ban the use of battery cages are based on emotions and flawed readings of scientific evidence. He warned that banning such cages altogether would lead to a 25 percent increase in egg prices, or about 25 cents per dozen at the current Grade A retail average.
“We would prefer that this be worked out through the marketplace and based on science,” Head said. “Instead it’s become a political and ballot-box issue. That makes us concerned.”
The industry’s main political action committee, the United Egg Association PAC, has donated about $1.1 million to members of Congress during the past decade, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group. Once heavily tilted in favor of Republicans, the PAC has shifted its giving toward Democrats since the party took control of Congress in 2006.
The precise source of the current outbreak is unclear, but the Food and Drug Administration has identified egregious health and sanitation problems at the two Iowa farms behind the recalls.
Battery cages, sometimes stacked to the ceiling in warehouses, can house up to a dozen hens each and are often too small to allow the birds to turn around or spread their wings. Animal rights activists point to studies showing that salmonella infection rates are up to 20 times higher in caged facilities.
But some researchers say the causal connection is unclear and that any increased risk might have more to do with the sheer scale of the operations, which often house a million hens or more at one location. Industry groups and companies argue that such “egg housing systems” are actually cleaner than “freerange” farms because the chickens are kept away from rodents, feces and other potential infection threats.
In California, the egg industry and other agribusiness groups spent nearly $9 million in an attempt to head off that state’s animal-welfare initiative, which requires that egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant sows be able to “lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely” in confinement. In July, the restrictions were extended to all whole eggs sold in the state, though there is disagreement about whether larger cages would be allowed.
One of the leading opponents of the California initiative was Austin J. “Jack” De-Coster, the Iowa egg producer at the center of the current outbreak, who has withstood a string of reprimands, penalties and complaints about his facilities over the past 20 years. Two companies owned by DeCoster – Wright County Egg in Iowa and Quality Egg of New England – contributed $200,000 to the effort. Hillandale, which has close ties to DeCoster, gave $96,000, records show.
DeCoster spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell referred questions about battery cages to the egg producers’ group.
Two legislators from California, Reps. Diane Watson and Elton Gallegly have crossed the aisle to introduce a bill that would bar the federal government from buying eggs produced in battery-cage facilities. The measure, which has about three dozen cosponsors, has been referred to the House Agriculture and Oversight and Government Reform committees.
Marion Nestle, a food safety expert at New York University, said restrictions on battery cages are good for the health of animals but added that many free-range facilities are plagued with crowding and other problems. She said the egg industry will continue to oppose new restrictions for simple reasons of economics.
“Why would they want to change the way they’re doing things?” asked Nestle, author of books including “What to Eat” and “Food Politics.” “It’s easy to control, easy to manage and a great way to produce cheap eggs. That’s the reality of why they do it this way.”