The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has announced its support of legislation calling for establishing national standards for treatment of egg-laying hens. The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 (H.R. 3798) introduced Jan. 23 would require that U.S. egg producers switch to larger, environmentally enriched hen housing systems over a 15- to 18-year period.
"We recognized the controversy supporting this bill would create," said AVMA Executive Board Chair Ted Cohn. "It certainly was one of the most challenging decisions made during my tenure. But we knew we needed to do what was best for the animals."
Last July, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) reached an agreement to advance the new federal legislation regarding U.S. egg production. If passed by Congress, the proposed standards would be the first federal law requiring specific housing standards of animals on farms.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has expressed concerns regarding the legislation. “If Congress approves the 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,” according to R.C. Hunt, NPPC president. “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.”
The legislation would require conventional hen cages to be replaced with new, enriched housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space currently allotted. It would also require that all egg-laying hens be provided environments that will allow them to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
AVMA board members knew their action would make political adversaries on the issue of some allies of the AVMA. According to AVMA board members, the vote was ultimately based on a single rationale: The proposed colony housing and enrichment standards would likely improve the lives of some 280 million egg-laying hens.
Additionally, the measure prohibits removing feed and water to induce molting, sets limits on ammonia concentrations in henhouses, and makes compliance with AVMA-approved euthanasia methods mandatory.
"The AVMA's support for H.R. 3798 enhances veterinarians as the group to initiate and support common-sense solutions that can bridge the animal rights/livestock continuum and present American agriculture as 21st century leaders in safe and healthy food," said Kurt Schrader, the Oregon congressman who introduced the legislation.
UEP President and CEO Gene Gregory welcomed the AVMA's endorsement of the legislation his organization helped create. "The AVMA is the most highly respected association of veterinarians and works for the health and welfare of all animals, including pets. We believe these professionals are the ones most qualified to recommend and evaluate standards for the welfare of animals. Therefore, their support was critically important," Gregory said.
Opponents of H.R. 3798 have called the Executive Board decision shortsighted, and even a sop to animal rights groups. The AVMA heard from farm, livestock, and veterinary organizations as well as some congressional staff members upset about the board's vote. Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the AVMA position is disappointing.
"AVMA's own science acknowledges that conventional cages, if used appropriately, can be effective for ensuring animal welfare," Ludlum said. "We understand the decision was made because the AVMA was being proactive and looking forward to continuous improvements, but we're disappointed the AVMA took a position that effectively rules out the use of conventional cages by producers." The AFBF will work with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council, among others, to prevent H.R. 3798 from becoming law, Ludlum noted.
Since the vote, AVMA officials have been talking with unhappy stakeholders to explain the reasons behind the Executive Board vote.
The AVMA's endorsement also touched a nerve within the veterinary profession itself. Bob Evans is the American Association of Avian Pathologists' representative on the AVMA Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee, which he also chairs. Although the AAAP supports the national egg standards, he considers H.R. 3798 an onerous bill, because it makes legislators—not veterinarians—responsible for establishing animal care and welfare standards, and requires legislative action when changes are needed.