Date: July 10th, 2011

There has been significant news in the animal welfare world in the last few days. As William Neuman in the New York Times reports:

"Two groups that are usually squawking at each other — egg farmers and animal welfare advocates — announced an unusual agreement on Thursday to work together to seek a federal law that would require larger cages and other improved conditions for the nation’s 280 million laying hens."

The article, in the Friday July 8 edition, is titled, "Egg Producers and Humane Society Urging Federal Standard on Hen Cages." It can be found on line at http://tinyurl.com/3cu59ca . It explains:
"The agreement was announced by the nation’s main egg industry group, the United Egg Producers, which represents farmers who own about 80 percent of the nation’s laying hens, and the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization."

"The groups said they would ask Congress to pass a law enacting the new standards, which they said would be the first federal law addressing the treatment of farm animals and would pre-empt efforts in several states to set their own standards."

I wish more had been made of the point that this will be the first federal law regarding farm animals. Few people in the public realize that farm animals are currently exempt from our national animal welfare laws.

It continues:
"The proposed federal standards would include cages that give hens up to 144 square inches of space each, compared with the 67 square inches that most hens have today. They would also include so-called habitat enrichments, like perches, scratching areas and nesting areas, that allow the birds to express natural behavior."

Note -- this is an agreement not a law, and the Times tells us:
"It is far from clear whether such a law could be passed. One potential obstacle is opposition from other poultry or livestock farmers, who may be worried that similar laws could some day apply to them."

The agreement comes with sacrifices:
"For its part, the Humane Society agreed to give up on a push to ban cages entirely in exchange for the opportunity to work toward a single, nationwide standard mandating better conditions. The group also said it would shelve efforts to get initiatives onto the ballot in Washington and Oregon, and would agree not to conduct undercover investigations at large egg farms unless it was aware of especially egregious practices."

We might therefore be thankful that HSUS is not the only game in town. It has most certainly been the leader on legislation to improve animal welfare, but groups such Farm Sanctuary have also been strong on legislation, and Mercy for Animals is one of many groups known for their undercover investigations. I can't see Mercy for Animals folding up shop and leaving the public in the dark because HSUS has agreed to shy away from future undercover investigations.

The New York Times article omits pertinent information. At http://tinyurl.com/6hf43gk HSUS provides details, one of the most important being that the standards of the agreement would "Prohibit forced molting through starvation, which involves withholding all food from birds for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle."

Reaction within the animal protection community has run the gamut from whoops of excitement to condemnation of the agreement as useless or even detrimental as it will make people feel better about eating eggs. My reaction is more measured. The HSUS page to which I have linked above provides two photos, one of a standard battery cage and one of an enriched colony cage, which is the proposed new standard. I look at the photos and see one of conditions that are horrifically gruesome, and then one of conditions that are still unspeakably cruel. Life in a 12 ft long colony cage with dozens of other birds is not a life. While any improvement that will affect billions of animals is hardly meaningless, I don't think one can take a good look at those photos and start jumping up and down with excitement.

The forced molting ban, also, is hardly meaningless -- or I certainly wouldn't think so if I were an animal who was about to be starved for 14 days before I was killed. I will definitely die one day but will hopefully never face 14 days of starvation and I am gratified to know that laying hens will soon be spared that particular horror. While frustrated that we cannot just ban egg consumption, we must not forget that the passage of a welfare law based on this agreement will mitigate some intense suffering for millions of individual beings, each of whose suffering matters.

In noting frustration that we can't just ban egg consumption, I will also note frustration at animal advocates who don't at least do their best to steer consumers away from it. The last paragraph of the HSUS page to which I linked above opens with:

"While The HSUS will continue advocating that consumers and corporations switch to cage-free eggs..."

While cage free operations are without doubt more bearable than battery cage farms, they are hardly Old McDonalds Farm. They are hideous huge sheds in which hens survive but do not really live. Such operations still treat the sentient animals as egg-laying objects. And they are part of the industry that simply disposes of male chicks, who are commonly thrown live into grinders, as they have no monetary value.

I do support efforts to ban cages in favor of cage free operations in order to alleviate some suffering for billions of animals. But what a shame to waste the opportunity to suggest that consumers start to move away from egg consumption. The vegan message is now moving fast through the mainstream, with proponents of plant-based diets spanning all walks of life, from former president Bill Clinton to Jack Ass star Steve O. Both Martha Stewart and Oprah have done shows touting vegan diets. So when an animal advocacy organization pushes cage free eggs with no mention of egg-free diets, perhaps because the "cage free" idea is more easily digested, that organization might be the largest in the nation but can hardly be seen as a leader. It is trailing even the entertainment industry. What a disappointment.

As my readers know, DawnWatch focuses on media, and one of the most important aspects of this agreement is the media around it. People who think these kinds of agreements just make people feel better about eating animal products are assuming that the majority of folks already feel badly; I think they overestimate common awareness. Few people know that farm animals are unprotected by animal welfare laws; these campaigns are a wonderful wake-up call. For example the New York Times article has a big close-up photo of a battery cage jammed with hens. Anybody intelligent enough to be reading the New York Times can look at that photo and realize that doubling that amount of space hardly means providing a good life.

Studies have shown that when people are exposed to such images of farm animal suffering via welfare campaigns, animal consumption drops. (See http://tinyurl.com/3w5xej8) Besides having that direct positive effect, such media also opens the door for us to comment on stories with letters to the editor that may be read by thousands. This story offers us the opportunity to ask people to rethink eggs in their diet, and I beg you not to waste it.

I have pointed to the New York Times coverage -- letters to the Times can be sent to letters@nytimes.com . But whatever appears in the New York Times today is likely to be in your local paper tomorrow, so check your paper or your paper's website for the story and please respond if it is there. Even if it's not in your paper yet, many smaller papers publish close to 100 percent of letters they receive, so you, having read about it in the New York Times, can raise the issue with your community via your local letters page.

Note -- Studies have shown that positive letters, appreciative of the coverage and then making your points, are the most likely to get published. So are shorter letters, so you needn't write much. And always include your full name, address, and daytime phone number when sending a letter to the editor.

Yours and the animals',
Karen Dawn

(DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at http://www.DawnWatch.com. You may forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts only if you do so unedited -- leave DawnWatch in the title and include this parenthesized tag line.)

Please go to http://tinyurl.com/254ulkx to check out Karen Dawn's book, "Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way we Treat Animals," which in 2008 was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the "Best Books of The Year!"

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Date: Sun Jul 10 10:20:28 2011

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