Point and Counterpoint on the UEP-HSUS Agreement

United Egg ProducersThe last column I wrote in 2011 dealt with the historic agreement between United Egg Producers and Wayne Pacelle’s Humane Society of the United States.

Like many in agriculture, I was less than thrilled with the idea that one of the leading farm industry organizations was playing ball with the leading animal rights lobbying group.

Moreover, I was troubled by the fact that UEP was joining HSUS in asking Congress to enact federal standards for hen housing, believing that the less involvement Congress has in animal husbandry issues, the better.

From my original column in Feedstuffs:

One cannot dismiss the overarching issue of a slippery slope or legislative overreach. In a political climate already charged by public sentiment against regulatory creep, I can’t see how agriculture’s leaders could support getting Congress involved in dictating animal husbandry practices.

This, in essence, has been my biggest talking point about HSUS all along. Since HSUS began targeting individual states at the ballot box more than a decade ago, policy observers, myself included, have often pointed out that Pacelle’s long-term strategy is to gain enough “credibility” to push for overarching federal legislation and regulation to put animal industries like protein production out of business.

As Smith reported, the groups opposing the UEP-HSUS deal are well aware that letting the camel’s nose under the tent is a huge mistake because, their letter said, legislatively mandated standards would be “an unconscionable federal overreach,” and “our gravest concern” is that the legislation would be a precedent that “could leach into all corners of animal farming.” <

Bingo.

I give lots of credit to UEP President Gene Gregory for penning a great counterpoint to my argument, a letter to the editor appearing in this week’s issue. Gregory lays out the case for why working with HSUS on a single federal housing standard was the best, and perhaps only, sensible option for egg farmers facing a patchwork of differing state regulations on the issue.

From Gregory’s letter:

Egg farmers believe a single national standard is the only way to shape their own future as sustainable, family-owned businesses. It is the only way to have some control over their own destiny, and avoid a bleak future of overlapping, inconsistent, unworkable state-based animal welfare standards that will result from ballot initiatives that our industry cannot win even if –- as we did in California in 2008 –- raise millions of dollars to try to educate the public. If ballot initiatives were decided on the basis of science, we would be confident of a positive outcome. Unfortunately, this is not how it works. Instead voters’ emotions are paramount and when animal welfare issues are decided on emotion and ignorance of farming practices, we lose.

Differing state standards have already been legislated or agreed upon in California, Michigan, Ohio and Oregon. When we reached our agreement with HSUS, we were on the verge of facing another ballot measure in Washington State that would require only cage-free production. There was still uncertainty among egg farmers in California and Michigan on whether those states would be forced into cage-free production. With 24 states having the ballot initiative option, we could see laws being enacted in many states that prohibited the free flow of eggs to meet the market demand.

The UEP counterpoint gave me pause for reflection this week, on a couple of different fronts. I’m still very much of the Patton mindset when it comes to dealing with HSUS, but I credit Gregory and the UEP leadership for taking a reasoned approach to a clearly game-changing set of circumstances in their business. Faced with similar circumstances, leaders of Ohio’s agricultural organizations opted to take a similar approach during 2010′s infamous “Ohio Compromise,” a move pilloried by many members of the farm press and by a number of the “rank and file” in the organizations involved.

In truth, Pacelle and company also took heat from some of HSUS constituents for “going soft” on animal agriculture.

While reflecting on Gregory’s letter, I penned some additional thoughts for this week’s column. An excerpt:

I’m no less concerned now than before that getting Congress involved in livestock care is bad business, but I am willing to give UEP members the benefit of the doubt. As Gregory points out, neither this intrepid columnist nor the numerous farm organizations that wrote to Congress urging them to ignore the HSUS-UEP legislation make our living producing eggs for the consumer. UEP members do. It’s been over a decade since I raised chickens on our farm, and we only handled 100 broilers at a time, and only a handful of batches of those every summer.

The needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the few, as Mr. Spock once said. The collective outrage of the many in agriculture who don’t like the idea of farmers cozying up to HSUS, however, probably doesn’t seem all that important to the (relatively) few egg farmers concerned about staying in business and feeding their kids.

Those, like me, outside the egg industry will have to wait and see if UEP’s gambit pays off, or if our worst fears come to bear. These farmers –- our comrades in arms, in a sense -– are doing what they think is right for their family farms and enterprises; far be it from me to tell them to do otherwise.

There is no “we,” in “U.S. agriculture…” There’s just us.

The second thing I was given pause to consider was the actual pro/con of moving from conventional cage housing to the aforementioned “enriched colony” housing systems. I wrote about that subject yesterday, here at The Angle.

Reflection is an important trait for an opinion writer, one that we often take for granted. I’m grateful for the opportunity this week to go back and visit a very important topic and offer some additional insight.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

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