A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Egg Industry Deal with Humane Group

How good is it for the hens?

The deal that was struck yesterday between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), which is the trade association for the egg factory farms, highlights the different approaches and philosophies of animal welfare groups like the HSUS, on the one hand, and the more radical animal rights groups on the other.

The deal that the HSUS has struck with the UEP will involve them going to Congress together to ask lawmakers to pass a bill that will require factory farms nationwide to increase the space that egg-laying hens have to move around in.

Right now, on any given day, there are 250 million hens at factory farms. Most of these facilities cram four hens into cages that allow each hen roughly 8 inches by 8 inches of space to live and move around in. It’s absurdly small, and this is how these birds spend their entire lives. About 50 million of them are crammed into even less space – 7 or more birds to a cage.

The new agreement would mandate new cages that give each hen a space of 12 inches by 12 inches. That’s the size of a medium-sized floor tile. It’s still wretchedly small, but it’s a little bit bigger.

This represents a victory in the world of animal welfare. It’s the way politics works, and when it comes to politics, the HSUS does it best. As the saying goes, politics is the art of compromise. And this is no doubt as good a compromise as can be accomplished. The chickens will be a little bit more comfortable in what is still a factory farm and a life of misery.

While the deal will be hailed by animal welfarists, it will be shunned, even scorned, by animal rights advocates. For example, Ed Coffin, who writes a pro-vegan blog, calls the agreement “really disheartening – good PR for the factory farm industry and good fund-raising material for organizations like the HSUS.” He writes:

“It actually does nothing to even begin to eliminate any level of suffering or death that egg-laying hens endure. These ‘victories’ for animals are becoming more and more common as both animal industry and animal ‘welfare’ groups both fiscally benefit from these publicity stunts.”

People like Coffin consider these political deals to be a step back, not forward.

“Agreements between animal ‘welfare’ groups and animal industries, such as this one, only make people feel more comfortable continuing to consume and purchase animal products. Clearly, the industries benefit because it’s great public relations for them and consumers can really feel good about supporting them. Also, animal ‘welfare’ groups enjoy the publicity and end up bringing in vast amounts of donations to fund similar campaigns.”

Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the HSUS, sees an entirely different picture. In an e-mail to donorsyesterday, he called the deal:

“a historic agreement that … could result in a complete makeover of the U.S. egg industry and improve the treatment of the 280 million laying hens used each year in U.S. egg production. Thanks to your support over the years, through our state ballot initiatives and legislative and corporate campaigns, we now have a new pathway forward to ban barren battery cages and phase in more humane standards nationwide.”

Which view is right? Some will say that having a few more inches to move around in is a step in the right direction. Others will say that the only good factory farm is a factory farm that’s been shut down, and that deals like this one only prolong the time it will take to shut them down.

There’s also some middle ground, as taken by Farm Sanctuary, whose heart is in the animal rights camp, but which also supported Proposition Two in California in 2008 – a voter initiative that made small changes for animals in factory farms.

“Is that great? No,” said Bruce Friedrich, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Farm Sanctuary. “But it’s a lot better than cramming five of these animals into a battery cage. It will provide a significantly better life for hundreds of millions of animals.”