Don't let fox roam hen house

Don't let fox roam hen house

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

THIS week, Feedstuffs staff editor Rod Smith reported on eight agricultural membership and policy organizations that signed a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee urging Congress to reject the agreement reached by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) on hen housing.

The letter -- signed by Egg Farmers of America, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Assn., National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation -- is noteworthy given the political clout of the signatories.

Smith's report indicates that the groups claim that the agreement would impose "costly and unnecessary animal rights mandates" on the U.S. egg industry and said its prescriptive nature would ensure that "Congress will be in the egg business for years to come" by requiring all egg producers to adopt specific hen housing standards.

This particular issue -- not my questions over HSUS's motives or the specific housing system discussed in the agreement -- is my biggest concern with the agreement in the first place. Without having read the entire letter, I'd say the signatories are well aware of the consequences inherent in getting Congress involved in regulating animal husbandry practices by statute.

The HSUS-UEP agreement calls for egg producers to transition from conventional cage housing to "enriched colony cages" by 2029, with the transition enforced by federal legislation in the form of an amendment to the U.S. Egg Products Inspection Act.

In their letter, the eight groups said implementation of this regulation would come at a cost to the egg industry of nearly $10 billion and the elimination of jobs.

Before setting that concern aside for a moment, I will stipulate that it is not an insignificant issue. However, if I were Wayne Pacelle, HSUS chief lobbyist and spokesmodel, my counterargument would be to question the average useful lifespan of a poultry housing facility. I don't know that answer off the top of my head, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around 20-30 years.

If that is indeed the case, one can assume that many of the facilities in production today will be ready for replacement sometime between now and 2029, meaning producers are likely including facility upgrades, repairs or replacements in their capital budgets already, and if not, 17 years is plenty of time to do so.

This was at the heart of the argument for phasing out certain livestock housing systems -- swine gestation stalls and "barren battery cages," for example -- in the "Ohio Compromise" HSUS and the state's agriculture industry reached in 2010.

Getting back to my concern, however: One cannot dismiss the overarching issue of a slippery slope or legislative overreach. In a political climate already charged by public sentiment against regulatory creep, I can't see how agriculture's leaders could support getting Congress involved in dictating animal husbandry practices.

This, in essence, has been my biggest talking point about HSUS all along. Since HSUS began targeting individual states at the ballot box more than a decade ago, policy observers, myself included, have often pointed out that Pacelle's long-term strategy is to gain enough "credibility" to push for overarching federal legislation and regulation to put animal industries like protein production out of business.

As Smith reported, the groups opposing the UEP-HSUS deal are well aware that letting the camel's nose under the tent is a huge mistake because, their letter said, legislatively mandated standards would be "an unconscionable federal overreach," and "our gravest concern" is that the legislation would be a precedent that "could leach into all corners of animal farming."

Bingo.

The American public has a pretty low opinion of Congress. I am convinced that our version of the parliamentary system may not be the ideal form of government, but it is the best form of government attempted in the history of civilization.

Even so, involving a body of officials necessarily concerned with re-election every two or six years in issues that are likely to be decided on the basis of emotion rather than science is not a political move any agricultural group should support.

UEP may have gained a short-term reprieve by keeping its enemies closer than the rest of us might like, but as any chicken farmer will tell you, it's never a good idea to let the fox roam the hen house.

After all, Will Rogers said it best: If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?

Volume:84 Issue:01

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