The great hen-cage debate of 2012 kicked off in earnest on Jan. 23 with Rep. Kurt Shrader introducing a bill that writes into federal law an agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States that nearly doubles the cage size for laying hens.

The stakes in this debate couldn’t be higher.

Why? Because, if Congress approves the Shrader bill, it will set a dangerous precedent in allowing the federal government to dictate how all livestock producers operate, down to and including how much space each animal is provided. In the end, all corners of animal agriculture could be affected, irreparably damaging the livelihoods of family farmers across the country.

The Shrader bill’s best-known provisions require the egg industry to increase laying-hen cage size over time from a current standard of 67 square inches to 124 square inches. Cost estimates for that change range from a low of $4 billion to a high of $10 billion.

But the bill, known officially as H.R. 3798, also dictates new egg-labeling requirements, as well as air-quality standards for henhouses. But it doesn’t  stop there. Ultimately, the bill would require hens to have “environmental enrichments” such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas to allow them to “express natural behaviors.” 

That’s a lot for egg producers to agree to. So what did HSUS give up in return? For its part, HSUS agreed not to seek future state ballot initiatives mandating cage dimensions and to stop lawsuits and undercover investigations of the egg industry.

HSUS did not agree to forego pushing for its ultimate goal: cage-free hens. When asked at a press conference announcing the HSUS/egg industry deal why his organization had “compromised” on that goal, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle said the agreement represented “incremental reform” and “measurable progress.” He added, “We ultimately want cage-free.”

If egg producers want to agree with HSUS on hen-housing standards, that’s their business. But when they attempt to codify those rules in federal law, that’s everyone’s business — at least all of us in food-animal production.

If the bill were to become law, we’re concerned that pressure will mount to set similar federal standards for other species, other activities involving animals and even for crop farmers. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility that a broad law, under the guise of “animal welfare,” could take away livestock producers’ freedom to operate in ways that are best for their animals, restrict how animals are used for research, and limit outdoor and recreational activities involving animals such as hunting and circuses. Farmers who raise corn, for example, might be prohibited from using genetically modified seeds or from using manure on their crops.

Indeed, nothing in the egg producers’ agreement prevents HSUS from mounting a follow-up campaign involving cattle or sheep or pigs. And guess who will top that list?

Setting strict, one-size-fits-all standards for hen houses would have all kinds of negative consequences. Food prices would rise, consumer choice would decline and small- and niche-market egg producers would be nearly wiped out. These are not “what-ifs” or scare tactics; they’re simple economics. If cage sizes nearly double, either production will be cut, possibly in half, or egg producers will need to build new barns to house their current number of hens. Either way, there’s a significant cost to producers and, ultimately, consumers.

In addition, with the federal budget under extreme pressure, H.R. 3798 would direct money away from needed activities such as food-safety inspections and toward intrusive federal oversight of farm-animal housing.

Europe has already gone this route. The European Egg Processors’ Association chair recently said a 2010 cage regulation in Germany has reduced production 20 percent. The story is similar in the United Kingdom, where housing requirements have increased operating costs by 8 percent. A recent Guardian News article warned of shortages in Great Britain supermarkets of eggs and products that contain eggs because the hen-housing regulation has forced farms to close.

But the broader question is why is this an issue for federal legislation in the first place? Under court rulings, Washington can infringe on individual rights if it demonstrates a compelling national interest. Where is the national interest here? 

States regulate insurance, marriage, who can drive, how elections are conducted and a long list of other activities. Indeed, five states have passed hen-housing bills similar to H.R. 3798.

Fearing a patchwork of different state cage laws was a motivating factor, causing UEP to enter into negotiations with HSUS. But animal scientists can’t even agree on an optimum cage size for laying hens. Does anyone seriously think federal bureaucrats have the answer? Or that they know what’s best for these animals?

Ironically, H.R. 3798 surfaced shortly before fast-food giant McDonald’s acted on its own to quell another emotional animal-welfare debate. McDonald’s announced in mid-February that it will work with its pork suppliers to phase out gestation-sow stalls. The company has asked pork industry representatives to submit plans to phase out stalls, including the costs involved and a workable timetable, and to report back in May.

Many pork producers will argue the wisdom of phasing out gestation-sow stalls. But few would disagree about working the issue out through the marketplace — as McDonald’s is doing — rather than with a needless and dangerous federal mandate.

In early March, the National Pork Producers Council board of directors commissioned the industry’s own comprehensive, two-year study of sow housing, while specifically rejecting “any federally mandated animal production systems” and “any efforts to promulgate federal regulation of livestock production practices.”  

But that won’t stop the Shrader bill, which likely will be offered as an amendment to the next agriculture appropriations bill or during the 2012 Farm Bill debate. The egg producers say if it doesn’t pass this year, they will try again in 2013.

H.R. 3798 is an unnecessary, costly and dangerous federal intrusion into day-to-day farm operations, with no benefit to the public or animal health. It also sets a dangerous precedent in allowing the federal government to regulate all farm production practices, down to and including individual animal-housing decisions. More broadly, it represents yet another egregious overreach into Americans’ lives in which the government has no logical role.

Treating farm animals humanely doesn’t require an act of Congress. Livestock farmers know best how to care for their animals. In the pork industry, we have best practices that promote both animal well-being and food safety. But those guidelines must always be based on science and our moral commitment to do the right thing, not the agenda of some advocacy group.

Producers don’t need HSUS — or the federal bureaucrats — to tell them how to run their farms.

Editor’s note: R.C. Hunt is president and co-owner of Andrews Hunt Farms in Bailey, N.C., and the newly elected president of the National Pork Producers Council.