FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — The animal welfare advocates who gave egg-laying hens more room to roam on California farms are trying to expand chicken coops across the nation with an unlikely ally — a group that previously had been their biggest opponent.
The effort to increase cage sizes for the 270 million laying hens in the U.S. is a compromise bill working its way through Congress supported by the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers, the industry's largest advocacy group.
The improbable alliance has formed amid a nationwide push by some consumers, grocers and restaurants to improve living conditions for farm animals that provide food for the table.
The Humane Society championed efforts to pass Proposition 2 in California in 2008 to get egg-laying hens out of cramped cages and put them in larger enclosures that give them room to stretch, perch, scratch and flap their wings.
The United Egg Producers fought that effort vigorously, opposing the changes as needless and expensive. But now the industry group is working with its former foe to head off more voter initiatives in other states that would cause a confusing array of regulations for producers who ship across state borders.
The Humane Society prefers doing away with cages altogether but sees this compromise bill as a way to improve the standard of living for hens across the country.
"We believe it's good for California hens, and for hens in the other 49 states as well," said Paul Shapiro, director of the Humane Society factory farming campaign. "In other many other states, there is little hope for change."
Opposition to the proposal also has brought together a surprising pairing of adversaries — the Humane Farming Association, a farm animal protection group, and most of the nation's leading beef and pork producers, who fear they will be the next target of legislation.
The Humane Farming Association says that the 63 percent of Californians who thought they voted to free chickens from cages will feel betrayed by the proposed nationwide rules.
"They're condemning them to generation after generation of lifetimes of misery," said Bradley Miller, the association's executive director. "Their basic argument is since they can't outlaw cages everywhere, let's not outlaw them anywhere, and that's absurd."
The federal legislation was introduced in the Senate on May 24 by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and in the House earlier this year by Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader, California Republican Jeff Denham and others.
It would amend the Egg Products Inspection Act to require producers to improve conditions for hens now housed in bare wire cages that give each bird the space equivalent to a standard sheet of paper.
If passed, it would end the ongoing debate over California's Proposition 2, which said chickens should be able to stand up and spread their wings without touching cage walls, something many interpret to mean "cage-free" since no such system exists.
But egg industry officials say cages are possible under the proposition's wording, and they've offered to transition to the so-called enriched colony systems that offer chickens much more room to move around and engage in natural behaviors such as perching. Such systems now required in the European Union.
"It's not a settled issue, and that's the real problem," Shapiro said. "It was a matter of debate then and is still debated today."
The federal legislation would give chickens 125 square inches of space within 15 years, a period that would allow farmers gradually to upgrade their housing systems. Proposition 2 did not set specific cage sizes, but one UC Davis expert said 93 square inches each would meet the requirements.
Within a year of enactment, consumers would easily be able to tell how their eggs are produced by one of four labels mandated on cartons: eggs from caged hens; eggs from enriched systems; cage-free hens; free-range hens.
Research in Europe shows that offered these explanations, more and more consumers choose eggs from hens treated better.
In a recent talk explaining the proposed law, United Egg Producers president Gene Gregory worked to convince his members that the caged chicken battle was an emotional issue they would never win.
Four states besides California are phasing in new laws that give chickens more room in cages. Nineteen more states allow voters to make new laws through the initiative process, which the Humane Society vowed to pursue and the egg industry group sought to avoid.
The Humane Society said it compromised in part because the states with the most chickens — Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas — don't allow ballot initiatives.
"We've had this battle for a long time, and it's costing a lot of money," Gregory told The Associated Press. "But we have to do something for our customers and consumers other than an unsustainable cage-free industry."
Gregory said his group reached out to the Humane Society and proposed the national enriched colony plan.
"They were receptive to that," he said.
It turns out there is a benefit for egg farmers to the new system. According to preliminary data collected at JS West in Modesto, so far California's only egg producer with an enriched colony system, chickens in in the larger European-style cages produce more eggs in a year, have lower mortality rates and have better feather cover — a sign of good health.
"They're producing well, if not better," said Jill Benson of JS West, which sells the eggs under the Comfort Coop label. "You can see them engaging in all of these natural behaviors that they didn't have the opportunity to do before."
None of this satisfies Miller at the Humane Farming Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, or a coalition of beef, pork and lamb producers that have become unlikely bedfellows.
In a letter to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who is chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, the coalition of beef, pork and lamb producers urged the defeat of the bill so they would not become the next target.
"Our gravest concern," the letter stated, "is that this could leach into all corners of animal farming, irreparably damaging the lives of family farmers across the country."