Food Forum: Washington hatches a good idea

Grocers should support federal legislation on eggs.

By Gene Gregory

How often do you hear grocers say, “That’s a great idea!” about something happening in Congress? Probably not that often. But a recent bill introduced in Congress is something to support if you sell eggs or egg products in your store … and what grocer does not sell eggs?

Did you know that if you operate a grocery store in more than one state, the eggs you sell in one store might have to be produced and labeled differently than the eggs you sell in another store? That is right. Several states have enacted legislation that will take effect beginning in 2015 dictating different rules for how eggs must be produced on farms in their states or sold in their states. In 24 states there are citizen ballot initiative processes that allow anyone to put such suggestions for new laws up to voters each year. The result is a patchwork of competing and conflicting state laws that could be a nightmare for any grocer trying to ship eggs across state lines to multiple grocery stores.

Egg farmers and companies have come up with a practical solution: H.R. 3798 is an amendment to the four-decades-old Egg Products Inspection Act. The bill is supported by both Republicans and Democrats. It is supported by egg farmers and the Humane Society of the United States. It also has the backing of the National Consumers League, the Consumer Federation of America, the American Veterinary Medical Association and more than two dozen other farm and animal protection groups. How is that for bi-partisanship?

Notably, the bill is supported by voters, too, by a 4-to-1 margin, according to independent research. Support also comes from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The (Portland) Oregonian, Green Bay Press Gazette, Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune, Albany (N.Y.) Democrat Herald and the San Diego Union Tribune.

How will grocers be affected by this legislation? Grocers’ egg suppliers would have to transition over many years away from conventional cages to enriched cages that provide egg-laying hens with nearly double the amount of space per hen and enrichments such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas that will allow hens to express natural behaviors.

New labeling on all egg cartons would be required to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as: “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens” and “eggs from free-range hens.”

Those are all things that egg farmers and suppliers support, and are willing to do for a national standard in egg production, rather than a multitude of conflicting state laws. A recent poll at the National Grocers Association convention earlier this year showed grocers supported this legislation as well, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Grocers only have to look at Europe to see what could happen in the U.S. without passage of this egg bill. The European Commission’s single compliance deadline for egg farmers there has caused reports of egg shortages and higher prices for European consumers. The gradual phase-in period and specific housing guidelines outlined in H.R. 3798 will assure the U.S. marketplace of a stable egg industry and supply and that is good for grocers and their customers.

This is just the latest progressive and responsible move by egg farmers and the egg industry.

Egg farmers were the first farm animal group to adopt a robust animal welfare program called UEP Certified (www.uepcertified.com) that sets out scientific guidelines for animal care, along with independent third-party inspections of farms. Consumers can look for the UEP Certified logo on egg cartons to be sure about the care of the hens that laid their eggs.
H.R. 3798 is just the latest egg-cellent idea from the egg industry for grocers, consumers, farmers and their hens. Let us hope Congress sees it that way, too.

Gene Gregory is president and CEO of United Egg Producers, which represents egg farmers who produce 88% of the eggs in the U.S. He can be reached at gene@unitedegg.com.

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