Humane Society, egg industry strike agreement on treatment of hens

California egg producers could receive significant help from a historic agreement for housing chickens announced Thursday in Washington between farm and animal rights groups.

The agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers calls for a national law that by 2029 would essentially double the size of caged space provided for the United States' 285 million laying hens.

For California farmers, who must comply with a voter-approved initiative, the proposed federal law could provide more certainty on the size of cage systems required here by 2015, backers said.

However, Thursday's pact also includes a big risk for the state's egg farmers. If Congress fails to pass a law, California egg producers once more could be forced to look to the courts for a ruling on exactly what size cages would be allowed under Proposition 2, which was approved by voters in 2008.

Under such a scenario, the agreement "blows up in our face," said Petaluma egg farmer Arnie Riebli. The state's farmers, he said, must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their cage systems and Congressional delays will make it harder for them to meet the initiative's 2015 deadline.

Egg producers and the Humane Society have been longtime adversaries on what constitutes humane hen houses. In California, the Humane Society trounced egg farmers by persuading 63 percent of the state's voters to approve Proposition 2. That law doesn't specify a space requirement but says each bird must have enough room to flap its wings without touching other hens.

In recent weeks, the two groups met and negotiated their agreement. One impetus was a Friday deadline for the Humane Society to file signatures for a Washington state ballot initiative. Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle said his group now will forego that effort, as well as a similar one in Oregon.

Both sides characterized the agreement as benefitting hens and the egg industry. They also said they each saw reasons to compromise in order to jointly seek national rules.

Pacelle said about half the states in the U.S. don't have a method that lets voters directly pass laws.

"We just couldn't achieve what we wanted through the initiative process," he said.

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