Bigger hen cages not enough, say foes of bill
Some national animal-welfare groups are up in arms over a bill they fear will weaken their efforts to get Washington egg producers to stop caging hens.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Some national animal-welfare groups are up in arms over a bill they fear will weaken their efforts to get Washington egg producers to stop caging hens.
Senate Bill 5487 would require Washington egg producers to phase out their current cages for more spacious ones by 2026. Supporters say the bill would improve conditions for the hens without unduly raising the cost of egg production.
Animal-welfare advocates, however, say the new cages still wouldn't be big enough.
"The animals are still confined in cages, they're not given very good dust baths, and their freedom of movement is still very much restrained," said Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, an animal-welfare group based in New York.
Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States filed an initiative in January that they hope would pressure egg producers to scrap caging entirely because of higher costs.
The measure requires egg producers to give their hens enough room to turn around freely and fully extend their wings. It also prohibits the stacking of cages and requires all eggs sold in the state come from farms that meet the initiative's standards.
Animal-welfare groups argue the Senate bill is a move to derail the initiative as they gather signatures to place it on the November ballot.
"Proponents of the bill intend to confuse voters," said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. "It merely gives the illusion of reform, when in reality it doesn't offer minimal improvements, in terms of offering less cramped cages, until the year 2026."
The bill has passed the state House and Senate, but it is back in the Senate for action on amendments.
The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he introduced the measure as a response to growing public concern about how the agriculture industry manages its poultry. But he opposes an entirely cage-free system because it would increase the cost of eggs for consumers.
"This bill meets the public concerns without putting commercial egg producers out of business," he said.
The main differences between the bill and initiative, I-1130, have to do with the minimum space requirements and when those standards would go into effect.
Under Schoesler's bill, egg producers would have until 2026 to phase out conventional cages, which currently give each hen about 67 square inches of space.
Instead, producers would be allowed to house hens in what are called enriched colony cages certified by the American Humane Association. An enriched colony cage provides at least 116.3 square inches of space per hen and has areas for nesting, perching and scratching.
Under the initiative, farmers would have until 2018 to provide each hen at least 216 square inches of space to fully spread her wings. Stacking cages with egg-laying hens would be prohibited.
Washington egg producers are backing the bill but not the initiative, which they argue goes too far and would increase costs.
Dr. Duane Olsen, a veterinarian and the general manager of Briarwood Farms in Rochester, Thurston County, said he believes his current cages are humane, but the state's egg-producing industry recognizes there are social pressures to give the hens more space.
"I lose no sleep at night because I'm not worried that the hens have been put in anything inhumane I've been associated with, but I recognize change is being put forward because the public is asking for it," said Olsen, who manages one of seven egg-production facilities licensed in Washington.
If the bill is signed into law, animal-welfare groups say they still plan to work to put the initiative on the November ballot.
Queenie Wong: 360-236-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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