Is It All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Enriched-cage design “creates an illusion of reform and only barely improves the quality of life for hens.”

Fifteen years is “way too long to implement for even the most modest of space allotments.”

–Kelly Peterson, Vice President of Field Services, HSUS, July 5, 2011.

We’ve never been ones who embraced an “all or nothing” approach to social change, as all or nothing often means nothing for the animals. We applauded when Proposition 2 passed in California outlawing battery cages for chickens even though we’d like to see laws banning the eating of chickens. We support laws banning the gas chamber for killing companion animals in pounds and so-called “shelters” even though we’d like to see laws banning the killing of animals in pounds and so-called “shelters.” We believe we should never sacrifice our principles or our ultimate goals, but we also believe that pragmatism bent on success should be our guide, rather than ineffectual and unyielding dogma that leaves animals to continue suffering egregiously and unnecessarily when the means and public will exist to eliminate certain forms of cruelty.  An activist can support incremental reform while also believing that abolition is the ultimate goal.

It is true that regardless of whether chickens have 48 inches of space, 67 inches, or 144 inches, cage size doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, they will all still be killed and that is ethically wrong. But it is also true that 144 inches is better than 48. And allowing animals to be kept in extreme cruelty to press a case for animal rights is not ethical and never has been. Nor is it necessary to convince people to go vegan, as killing in and of itself is, and always will be, egregious enough.

And so while we still believe that ending battery cages is not enough, we support efforts to make life for animals, however short, more bearable on today’s factory farm. Admittedly, we feel a bit dirty supporting “humane” farming laws. After all, humanely raised “meat” or eggs is oxymoronic. And ultimately, as we say in our book, we do not need “cage-free” or “free-range” chicken nuggets, we need chicken-free “chicken” nuggets. Rendering meat obsolete by weaning Americans off animal-based foods is one of the most pressing goals of our movement. And we constantly hear the words of William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist, ringing in our ears, railing against those who thought that “humane-treatment-of-slaves legislation” was the goal.* Like Garrison, our goal is the liberation of animals. And that means a vegan society. But we don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. We will continue to promote veganism, even as we support efforts like Proposition 2. But not everyone shares our views.

A Landmark Agreement or a Sham?

We expected to hear both sides when the Humane Society of the United States announced what it called a “landmark” agreement with the United Egg Producers (UEP), an egg-industry trade group for improved housing conditions for egg-laying hens. On the one hand were those who called it “the single biggest step forward for farmed animal welfare in American history.” On the other were those who called it a devil’s bargain, saying the chickens themselves would still live a “hellish existence” with a slaughterhouse being their final destination. And there are those in the middle who embrace the improvement, but lament those practices that will continue because they are outside the scope of the agreement—such as painful debeaking and the grinding alive of male chicks.

But we’ve not seen sustained analysis from either camp, with most of the arguments in favor parroting the claims of HSUS’ press release, and most of the arguments against simply claiming that as long as chickens are killed, there is no victory (or progress). And so we sat down to ask and answer the question for ourselves: Is the agreement all it’s cracked up to be? And we have no choice but to answer, it is not. Sadly, this agreement appears more concerned with the announcement’s media and fundraising potential than it does about succeeding at substanitive reform that will make life more bearable for chickens on the factory farm.

The HSUS Spin

According to HSUS, “The HSUS and The UEP reached an historic agreement whereby both organizations will support—and work together toward enactment of—federal legislation to afford certain protections to all U.S. egg laying hens. If passed, the federal legislation would:

  • Eliminate new construction of barren battery cages, and replace the existing cages, through a phase-in, with new “enriched colony cage” housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently allotted.
  • Require that these new cages provide environmental enrichments that will allow hens to engage in important natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas.
  • Mandate labeling on all egg cartons to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from cage-free hens” or “eggs from free-range hens.”
  • Prohibit forced molting through starvation, which involves withholding all food from birds for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle.
  • Mandate euthanasia standards for spent hens.
  • Prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses.
  • Prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements.”

It sounds exciting and we get hopeful when we read that the law, if passed, “would represent the first time that any species of animal is provided with federal protection from abuse while on factory farms, the first federal farm animal protection law in more than 30 years, and the first time that chickens used in food production are provided any federal protections at all.” But is the truth as promising as their press release?

The Bleak Reality

First, the agreement requires federal legislation and groups, both within the egg-industry and from other animal-use industries like the “National Pork Producers Council,” are already lining up in opposition. Between a do-nothing Congress beholden to its corporate allies and industry arguments about the loss of jobs and cost of “food” during a tenuous economic climate, we do not believe the law will pass. In the far-flung chance that it does, it will be watered down in ways that render its tenets moot, while usurping through Federal preemption more stringent requirements in states that the initiative process can give us by taking the issue directly to the people.

Second, in return for UEP buy-in, HSUS has agreed it will no longer seek statewide laws regulating egg farms, will not push ahead with initiatives to do so in Washington and Oregon, will not investigate cruelties within the egg industry, and perhaps more importantly according to the New York Times, they “agreed to give up on a push to ban cages entirely.” In other words, in a best case scenario, we’ll get limited progress indefinitely, instead of more steady progress over time. For years, HSUS was insisting that “the goal is to eliminate cages. Period.” And just a few short days ago, HSUS reiterated that position in response to Oregon passing cage standards by arguing that enriched-cage design, like the ones they now embrace in the agreement, “creates an illusion of reform and only barely improves the quality of life for hens.” What changed?

Third, it allows for a transition period of 15-18 years in order to spread out the estimated cost of $4 billion. But 18 years is an eternity for chickens, and given that the egg industry alone brings in $7 billion annually, they could afford to do more and do it quickly. In other words, the industry will have made $126 billion during that time when the initial cost projections are a mere $4 billion. Surely, they could up the timetable given the huge amount of money the industry makes and given that those expenses are tax deductible. In fact, Europe has already made battery cages illegal and given egg producers there until next year to phase them out. In California, Proposition 2 gave them half that time. Likewise, Oregon’s new cage standards give egg producers 15 years to comply, which HSUS argued just four days ago was “way too long to implement for even the most modest of space allotments.” Again, we ask, what changed?

Fourth, if HSUS agrees to concessions today, why doesn’t the UEP and its members honor commitments today as well? In other words, while federal legislation is pending, egg producers can, among other things, stop forced molting through starvation voluntarily right now.

Fifth, given that the agreement was negotiated in secret, it is not even clear that UEP members will go along with it, nor how much power UEP actually has in relation to those members.

Sixth, even if a law is passed which is doubtful, even if it is not watered down if it does pass which is doubtful, what kind of enforcement will there be? Will it be enforced by the industry-protecting, look-the-other-way USDA? (By contrast, enforcement can be mandated through state initiatives.) Moreover, there is nothing that would preempt the egg industry from asking Congress to delay implementation or even repeal the law  a decade or more from now as the deadline looms. This is what other regulated industries have routinely done. Remember the regulatory promises of 100 mpg and zero-emission cars made in the 1970s and early 1980s? We’re still waiting for them industry wide in 2011. Oil companies were just granted a reprieve from meeting California’s cap-and-trade requirements. And utilities have still not met state requirements for renewable energy. It is a fraudulent but very effective form of overcoming corporate regulation in this country: appear to comply, then delay, delay, delay.

California voters already passed Proposition 2, which will outlaw the production of eggs from battery-caged hens in the state by 2015. Michigan has banned battery cages. Ohio has enacted a moratorium against the construction of new battery egg facilities. Oregon and Washington have passed enriched-cage standards. And, had they wanted to pursue them, more stringent HSUS initiatives in Washington and Oregon would have similarly been successful, but are now on hold because of the agreement. In other words, even without the UEP, we were going to get there anyway. With the deal, HSUS has given them nearly two decades to comply but agreed not to pursue other remedies now.

The Proponents

According to proponents, however, “It’s easy to see why HSUS agreed to this deal. Oregon and Washington together were certain to require many millions of dollars, plus countless employee and volunteer hours. And victory was hardly guaranteed. Worse, even if a victory was won, there would have been no way to continue this momentum. Few of the remaining top egg-producing states allow for ballot initiatives, so egg farms in these states were largely untouchable by HSUS campaigns.”

Moreover, they continue, “[while] the animal protection movement’s recent efforts against battery cages have been remarkably successful, it’s important to understand that the opportunity cost has been tremendous. The factory farming campaign at HSUS involves just small group of full-time employees, most of whom have directed the bulk of their time lately to the plight of laying hens. With today’s agreement, expect those energies to be redirected to remedy the egregious cruelties inflicted onto other farmed animals.”

These views are remarkably short-sighted. First of all, if the success in California, Michigan, and Ohio are any indication, the prospects for success in other states are excellent. Proposition 2 didn’t just win, it was a landslide victory despite the fact that the industry outspent supporters by a 9 to 1 margin and virtually every newspaper in California opposed the measure. Yet despite these facts, roughly 80% of counties supported it in the nation’s largest agricultural state.

Second, the fact that it would have cost “many millions of dollars” is also short-sighted. With revenues of over $100 million a year and assets approach $1 billion, HSUS is the wealthiest animal protection organization in the U.S. and one of the top 200 charities overall. Money isn’t a bar of any kind.

Third, the fact that “Few of the remaining top egg-producing states allow for ballot initiatives, so egg farms in these states were largely untouchable by HSUS campaigns” also misses the mark. Where states like California go, so goes the nation. If Iowa egg farmers have to meet California requirements to sell eggs in California (or Washington or Oregon), they’ll have to meet those standards in order to remain competitive and viable. That is why when California regulates automobile standards, Detroit has to follow nationwide. We don’t have to convince all egg-producing states, just enough of them to create critical mass.

Moreover, the argument that opportunity costs are large ignores the biggest reason why. That the “factory farming campaign of HSUS involves just [a] small group of full-time employees” is not a given. It is a choice made by the leadership of HSUS. Given its immense wealth, the campaign could be much larger—with employees dedicated to laying hens, and others working on issues relating to pigs, cows or chickens raised for meat. Instead of spending most of their money on the animals, as donors intended, HSUS is feeding pensions, lavish lifestyles, and sticking it in their already bloated coffers.  No Kill advocates have long complained that HSUS hoards the money it should be spending for its intended purpose. While HSUS raises a bulk of its money on claiming to save dogs and cats in shelters, for example, it only spends ½ of 1% of its revenue on direct care for animals in shelters. As an excuse, HSUS claims it is a lobbying organization that focuses on other campaigns like factory farming issues. But it appears they spend too little in this arena also.

Finally, and not insignificantly, is the frustration many of us feel when Wayne Pacelle speaks as though HSUS is the final word on what the animal protection movement in the United States is seeking for hens. In this week’s New York Times article, Pacelle is quoted as saying, “We always feel if we can work with the folks who are handling the animals and get them to agree to improve standards, that’s the best outcome. We don’t have to be locked in combat forever. That’s not our goal.”  While there may be many pragmatic and even ethically-justifiable reasons to support regulations that merely limit cruelty but do not abolish it, and—at times—to even laud those achievements in the public arena, there is no need in so doing to also concede larger and more pressing goals, such as the elimination of cages entirely or even animal agriculture. And to imply that the cruel treatment and killing of chickens which will continue even if these regulations were to succeed is even remotely consistent with the true well-being of animals, is unethical, misleading and undermines the work of those laboring to put an end to animal agriculture entirely.

Giving Away the Store

At the end of the day, this agreement which may or may not deliver intended reforms nearly two decades from now gives up far too much: litigation, more stringent legislation, the initiative process, investigations, and advocacy. To concede the process and the goals that up until now have delivered the greatest and most rapid progress for laying hens in favor of an agreement which has major provisions that do not go into effect for 18 years, that embraces an approach which, as recently as four days ago, HSUS called “an illusion of reform [which] only barely improves the quality of life for hens,” and which, given the harsh political realities of Washington DC, seems unlikely to succeed, is to declare a premature and potentially false victory.

When we expose the reality behind “food” production through ballot initiatives and revealing undercover investigations, we gain power and we gain influence with the American public that we can harness to bring these practices to an end.  Our success thus far proves that we can regulate these farms without their consent and therefore without unnecessary compromise or allowing them to set ridiculous timelines that delay reform for nearly two decades, if at all. To cave in now is to lose valuable momentum that could yield much greater and much quicker progress for laying hens over the next 20 years than what HSUS is asking us to do: sit on our hands until 2029.

* A movement which was tenaciously pursued during the fight for abolition but which our collective recollection of history has all but forgotten. Humane slavery? What an absurd concept.

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