By Stan Maddux
Many egg producers in Michigan could be scrambling to comply with more spacious housing standards for laying hens because a bill that would have allowed a five-year delay was vetoed.
The veto of Senate Bill 660 was among several pieces of legislation rejected by Rick Snyder before he vacated the governor's seat at the end of the year.
In his veto letter, Snyder objected to an amendment to the bill that claimed eggs from hens housed in a certain confined manner increased consumer risk of food-borne illnesses.
“The body of research into hen health and egg safety does not provide a clear indication that any one type of hen housing impacts egg safety more than another,” he wrote.
The veto does not impact the original law from 2009 that mandates at least 144 square inches of space for each laying hen by October.
Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, says the veto has provided momentum toward ongoing efforts by his group to have the housing standard abolished before egg producers must be in compliance.
His group is also active in pushing for other states with similar housing requirements to remove those laws.
He cited a study by Pennsylvania State University that showed eggs from cage-free environments are riskier to eat due to buildup of salmonella bacteria and dust, which are more likely to occur from chickens roaming.
Klippen also says a higher percentage of chickens in uncaged settings die from being able to attack each other. Caged settings, he adds, provide more controls in areas like sanitation where eggs are not dropping into feces like they do when hens are outside running around.
“The claims [that] it's better for the chicken are totally false,'' he says.
There is no language in Michigan's new housing standard that requires laying hens to be cage-free. It only states that each laying hen be given no less than 144 square inches of space, so they can lay down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.
However, Klippen says cage-free could be the next step, judging by what happened in California, where greater space requirements turned into a mandated cage-free environment.
“The effort is to take all of the birds out of cages. That is the intention, and the result will be more mortality among the chickens. The potential for more pathogens on the egg shell and in the egg,” Klippen says.
Michigan's new confinement requirement does meet the definition of cage-free, so eggs from such settings will be considered cage-free when they go to market.
Demand not there
The vetoed bill, approved by the state Legislature in early December, would have pushed back the compliance deadline to 2025.
According to industry experts, demand right now for cage-free eggs is far from being where it needs to be to support the higher cost of egg production in such settings.
Demand was expected to be higher by now when Michigan's new housing requirements passed 10 years ago. But a national cage-free standard pushed for by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights activists never materialized, slowing the projected growth in demand for cage-free eggs.
Allison Brink, executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries Inc., says the veto was disappointing. Her group supported the five-year compliance delay.
She says commitments to buy cage-free eggs by more restaurant chains and other large buyers won't take effect until 2025. Until then, she says, there will be a market glut of cage-free eggs from Michigan, placing egg producers here at risk from lower returns and higher production costs.
''If the market was here, we wouldn't need the extension,'' Brink explains.
Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, says he also supported the standard, but a five-year compliance delay was critical because most egg producers won't be able to bring their facilities up to code by the original deadline.
The required housing upgrades, Byrum says, are costly, and cage-free production will hurt the ability of producers to recover the investment from lower returns and higher production costs until the market becomes more solid.
"This date change would have coincided with the actual market development,'' Byrum says.
While against the new housing mandate, Klippen says the veto was critical because claims that eggs from stressful settings carry more of a health risk could have been used as leverage by animal rights groups to develop similar requirements in other states.
Although Michigan Farm Bureau declined to comment, the organization issued a statement saying it opposed the package, based on member-approved policy established in late November regarding animal care during the organization’s 2018 annual meeting.
According to MFB, 412 voting delegates debated the issue extensively, ultimately approving policy calling for the formation of a state-level animal care standards board, consisting of representatives from the livestock industry, Michigan State University, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
In a press release following delegate floor debate, Andrew Hagenow, a Kent County farmer and chairman of the MFB Policy Development Committee, says the board would operate in similar fashion to Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, with “scientifically based” Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMPs) created, reviewed and revised regularly.
“It would enable Michigan’s livestock industry and veterinarians to be in charge of animal housing and animal care standards, rather than the political whims of the Legislature or ballot initiatives,” Hagenow says, referring to numerous animal care ballot initiatives in California.
MFB’s animal care policy also stressed the need to “understand the difference between organizations that support sound science and animal care versus those that are promoting animal rights and attempting to eliminate or greatly restrict livestock production in the United States.”
The 2009 legislation also orders more space for pregnant sows by October.
There was no attempt to roll back the deadline for pork producers because most are prepared to comply, says Mary Kelpinski, chief executive officer for the Michigan Pork Producers Association.
Many pig farmers, she says, started undertaking new construction and remodeling of existing structures to meet the new standard after it was first adopted.
“The pork industry is prepared to make the changes and follow the law,” Kelpinski says.
Byrum says egg producers have not been able to convert to the new standard as quickly because the process required for compliance is much more involved, costly and complex.
In most cases, it involves totally new barns, which was not the case with pork producer compliance, he says.
Maddux writes from New Buffalo, Mich.