Inside Augusta

Lawmakers wasting time on cage-free egg bill

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Maine has a $232 million annual transportation funding shortfall. Nursing homes that care for our seniors are closing left and right because reimbursement rates are too low to keep up with a punishing minimum wage law. Thousands of disabled Mainers remain on waitlists for services under the Medicaid program. But worry not, because lawmakers are preparing to solve the most troubling issue of our time: the confinement of egg-laying hens.

Perhaps the most absurd “emergency” bill admitted into the Second Session of the 129th Legislature by the Democrat-led Legislative Council is LD 2084, “An Act Prohibiting Certain Confinement of Egg-laying Hens and the Sale of Their Eggs.” Despite the Maine Constitution clearly stating that an emergency bill is one “immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety,” our legislature is actually wasting valuable time and taxpayer dollars considering this ridiculous bill.

LD 2084, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil of Saco, would prohibit farmers from keeping female birds in enclosures that do not meet the definition of “cage-free housing system” under the bill, while also banning the commercial sale of eggs from caged birds. While the primary focus of the bill is hens, the prohibition includes “any female domesticated chicken, turkey, duck goose or guinea fowl.” In simpler terms, it would restrict the production and consumption of perfectly legal foods based on the values of special interest groups.

Under the bill, an individual who violates the proposed law commits a civil violation. A court shall assess a civil fine of no less than $500 and no more than $5,000 per violation. Lawmakers held a public hearing on the bill on February 11 and a work session has not yet been scheduled.

Critics of the bill point to animal welfare and the cost of eggs from caged vs. cage-free environments as reason to oppose the bill. Testimony from Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, points to a study conducted by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply that found bird mortality was highest in the cage-free system (11.5 percent) versus 4.7 percent in the conventional system.

“Forcing chickens into production systems that increase mortality is less humane,” Klippen said.

The Maine Farm Bureau Association raised similar concerns in their testimony, telling lawmakers there are pros and cons to each production system and that Maine consumers should have the freedom to choose which is best for their bottom line.

“There is no consensus within the egg industry that cage-free is the best option for egg production. There are benefits and drawbacks to each method of production, and it is unnecessary to eliminate all but one method of production. Mainers currently enjoy the ability to purchase inexpensive, wholesome, nutritious eggs produced in the State of Maine. This bill would eliminate inexpensive eggs, a critical source of protein for low-income and fixed-income citizens.

It furthermore has the potential to create a shortage of eggs, by mandating that all eggs sold be cage-free. There are currently not enough cage-free production facilities to provide the number of eggs currently purchased by Maine consumers. This bill would not only cause a shortage of eggs in Maine, it would prohibit the purchase of locally produced eggs, as there are currently no cage-free commercial facilities in Maine,” the association said in its testimony. It also noted that the cost of a cage-free facility is about $29 per bird whereas the cost of a conventional facility is $12 per bird.

Rep. Josh Morris and Sen. Jeff Timberlake, who represent Turner in the Maine House and Senate, aired concerns about what LD 2084 would mean for jobs in their community. Turner is home to Hillandale Farms, formerly DeCoster Egg Farm, the state’s largest egg producer, as well as the largest employer and taxpayer in Turner.

In his testimony, Rep. Morris talked about the impact Hillandale has on other farmers in the region by selling chicken manure at a cost less than commercial fertilizers.

“These [dairy] farms rely on the chicken manure from the egg farm to fertilize their fields for feed for their cows. If they can’t get manure from the egg farm, they would be forced to purchase more expensive commercial fertilizers that will drive up the cost of doing business. This will drive up the cost of milk in the state or make it harder for dairy farms to remain open,” Morris said.

Rep. Morris and Sen. Timberlake also called on lawmakers to protect an inexpensive source of protein for low-income Mainers in the form of eggs from caged hens.

“We hear much of food insecurity in Maine. Eggs from caged hens are cheaper to produce,” Rep. Morris said.

“Let the people of Maine decide if they want to buy cage free eggs for $3.99 a dozen or caged eggs for 99¢ a dozen,” Sen. Timberlake said.

Timberlake also asserted in his testimony that he had firsthand knowledge that the bill would become a ballot initiative if it’s not supported by lawmakers this session.

“The only reason this bill is before you is because Katie Hansberry from the Humane Society and Bill Bell from the Brown Egg Industry threatened Steve Vendemia of Hillandale, that if he did not support this bill that a referendum would be initiated in its place,” Sen. Timberlake said.

“If you pass this bill, you are signing a death certificate for [Hillandale] and all other surrounding farms.”

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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