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MARCH 11, 2007 5:42 PM

Egg Farmers Clucking at Cage Ban

KEN DIXON kdixon@ctpost.com
Connecticut Post Online

Article Last Updated:03/10/2007 12:40:48 AM EST

HARTFORD — Connecticut egg farmers warned Friday that they could be put out of business if state lawmakers ban cages for hens.

But the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States charged that factory-farming tactics that put as many as nine hens in a living space no bigger than a sheet of newspaper are wrong and are being phased out in the European Union.

During a daylong public hearing, members of the General Assembly's Environment Committee on Friday seemed conflicted over the economic and moral aspects of the legislation, which was opposed by state Agriculture Commissioner F. Philip Prelli.

Prelli said there's no scientific evidence that says cage-free hens lead better lives than those in cages, where state agriculture inspectors can have an easier time monitoring their condition, and cages keep chicken manure off the eggs.

"The concept of housing laying hens in cages is necessarily inhumane is based on conjecture and not supported by scientific evidence," Prelli said. "Hens that are contented tend to lay more eggs [a question: maybe nervious, stressed out hens actually lay more eggs?], and in all the studies we're seen, caged hens lay more eggs than free-roving hens. So to say they're not content is incorrect."

"Connecticut consumers should be able to make their own choices in purchasing food products," Prelli said. "If chickens weren't, in effect — I don't want to say happy — but if they weren't somewhat satisfied in the conditions they were in, they wouldn't lay eggs." [This is not true.]

Prelli said that if the egg industry were to end, the economic ripple effect, according to a 2002 study, would be more than $161 million, including $90 million in direct effects and $71 million in indirect losses including a spillover into the dairy industry. [question: what would the economic (and non-economic) benefits be? if the "costs" are mentioned, so must the "benefits," unless one wants to be "one-sided."]

The legislation would also prohibit the state Department of Administrative Services from buying eggs from farms that use cages. "There's virtually no commercial cage-free layer production in Connecticut," Prelli said.

Connecticut ranks 29th in the nation for egg production.

Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, a member of the committee, said constituents of his believe the bill is a good measure to give hens some space to spread their wings.

"The science says that that's not true," Prelli replied. "Whether it's humane or not, and a lot of the time in the way we treat animals, it's people's perception on what they need."

Hugh Mathews, an egg farmer for the sprawling KofKoff Egg Farm Co., based in the state's southeastern town of Bozrah, said the egg industry would simply close up shop if the law were enacted. He said the operation is using the industry standard for raising eggs in the state.

But Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, which has 168,000 members in Connecticut, said the so-called battery cage, which holds up to nine chickens, is cruel.

"We're seeing the moral floor of this industry taken out from under it," Pacelle said, suggesting that lawmakers, at very the least, should consider a multi-year phase out of battery cages. "This is about giving these birds a little more space. All this asks is to give these animals a chance to extend their wings. We're talking about showing these animals a little humanity." [Of course, perhaps a lot more needs to be done than this, but I guess we've gotta start somewhere.]

On average, each caged laying hen is afforded 67 square inches of space, less than a single sheet of letter-sized paper, on which to live her entire life, Pacelle said. "The animals are also denied any opportunity to engage in numerous important, natural behaviors, including nesting, dust bathing, perching, and foraging."

Rep. Robert W. Megna, D-New Haven, a member of the committee, said he notices the difference in eggs.

"I buy cage-free organic eggs," he said. "I find they taste better. They're a little more expensive and you can actually find them everywhere."

Stores including Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace decline to sell the battery-cage eggs, and in the last Congress, U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, sponsored legislation that would have required the federal government to purchase eggs only from cage-free hens.