Understanding Iowa's controversial bill requiring eggs from battery-caged hens

Gareth Lewis asked about an Iowa state bill that restricts grocery stores from only selling “cage-free” eggs: I was unable to find a reasonable defense of passing this bill, but I would hope it wasn’t purely just to allow the farms that have worse conditions to be able to stay in business. The silver lining seemed to be that the demand for more humanely raised animals is growing.”

The state of Iowa passed a law restricting grocery stores from only selling “cage-free” eggs on March 21. “Cage-free” is a vague term that means the hens are able to spread their wings and lay eggs in nests (Humane Society). Under House File 2408, certain stores must sell the cheaper conventional eggs laid by chickens raised in “battery cages” alongside their cage-free counterpart.

“Battery cages” are grated coops with as little as 67 square inches (430 square centimeters) of space that can hold roughly 10 chickens (Humane Society). These are widely used by the largest agriculture corporations because they produce the cheapest egg. 

Battery farm, unknown location. From Wikicommons. Credit to Maqi


Stores affected by the law

Several Iowa grocers are exempt from this bill. Those with a “cage-free egg only” policy that existed before January 2018 can continue to do so once the legislation takes effect.

The bill targets stores that fulfill two categories: those that had conventional white eggs on their shelves prior to 2018, and stores that accept vouchers for government-funded food assistance, known as WIC. WIC is shorthand for the Womens, Infants and Children, a program under the national Special Supplemental Nutrition Program.

Stores planning on a transition to cage-free will feel the impact of this law the most. This includes Walmart, the country’s largest food-seller, which plans to shift to 100 percent cage-free supply chain by 2025. Under HB 2408, Walmart would be unable to fulfill this goal in Iowa.

Defense for the bill

While many animal rights advocates see “cage-free” as an inadequate and mainly symbolic gesture for animal welfare, the added shift away from battery cages does come at a higher cost for consumers (Washington Post). 

State Representative Jarad Klein, who introduced the bill in the house, told the Des Moines Register that HF 2408 is designed to ensure that low-income Iowans have access to the most affordable eggs. The difference in price between a dozen battery-caged eggs and a dozen cage-free eggs can range from $1.25 to $1.50, according to Buzzfeed.

Iowa State House Representative Jarad Klein. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Klein’s argument has some merit considering that under current Iowa law, WIC recipients can only use their government benefits to purchase the most basic of provisions, such as conventional eggs. If stores were to phase out eggs from battery cages, low-income Iowans might have difficulty finding the crucial protein source that they can purchase through WIC. 

With Walmart planning to shift to cage-free future by 2025, the law ensures that WIC recipients see plenty of conventional egg options on Walmart shelves. The average Walmart customer earns $56,482 a year (American Marketing Association).

Allegations of corporate influence of “big agriculture”

The agriculture and livestock industries employs over 211,000 Iowans, according to Iowa State University. Those industries also donated roughly $1 million in campaign contributions for Iowa federal races in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The corn industry has been an icon of agriculture’s grip on Iowa politics. Lobbyists have been accused of pushing for federal subsidies for ethanol, a corn-based energy source, despite evidence that the market is self-sustaining (Taxpayers for Common Sense).

CivilEats, a publication focused on ethical food production, also claimed that Rep. Klein received “considerable campaign contributions” from agribusiness, though they don’t provide a link to the figure.

Data from the Iowa Ethics Commission shows that he accepted roughly $14,000 contributions from agriculture lobbying groups since 2014, not including individual farmers. The majority of the agribusiness donations came from the corn industry. 

What is cage-free?

Walmart is not the only major corporation attempting a complete shift to cage-free chickens. McDonald’s announced the same measure in 2015. Costco laid out its own plan a year later. (New York Times).  But, whether a Costco “cage-free” hen is better than a caged one in a Perdue farm, is a debate in the animal-welfare community. 

“Cage-free” does not mean the egg-laying chickens are able to roam free on grass. Even hens raised “free-range” hens, a higher-level of ethical standards that ensures chickens get time outside, is only loosely enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (The Balance). 

Richard Blatchford, professor of animal welfare at the University of Davis, refers to cage-free as an “umbrella term” for any egg-laying hen not housed in a cage.

“The question becomes, ‘How do you define a cage?’ That’s where some interpretations, particularly consumer interpretations, may turn into misperceptions,” Blatchford told WikiTribune. He has seen dozens of cage-free systems implemented

The state of California, where Blatchford works, passed one of the more aggressive laws on the human treatment of livestock in 2008. What is known as “Proposition 2” mandates that farm animals have the ability to stand up and lay down in their respective cages, which essentially moved the state towards cage-free.

Cage-free mandates, led to a rise in what are known as “aviary” systems. These are barns with tiers, that keep chickens on the floor or overlooking the floor from a balcony. While chickens have more space than a traditional cage, there is evidence that they might not be necessarily better for the hen. Similar to their battery-caged counterparts, cage-free birds have the tip of their beaks burned off to avoid pecking, and the hens almost never get to go outside (Humane Society).

CSES Cage-Free Aviary.wmv

Learn about cage-free aviary housing being studied in the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply Laying Hen Research project. For more information, visit www.SustainableEggCoalition.org.

The Coalition of Sustainable Egg Supply, which works to improve environment and ethical standards of egg production, acknowledges in the above video that cage-less systems tend to incubate more disease because the chickens are in contact with their own fecal matter, which typically drops below in traditional cages. Hens in aviary systems are also prone to cannibalism, according to the Globe and Mail, which can spread throughout a barn because chickens tend to copy the behavior that they see.

Blatchford is tasked with finding a balance between the egg producer and the life of the chicken. He stresses that every system of mass poultry production comes with problems, and that farmers are still learning how to run a cage-free operation.

“It just depends on what is most important to you as a consumer, as to what is most acceptable,” he says.


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