HSUS Scrambles for Credibility

There’s big news in the animal agriculture world today: The Humane Society of the United States (the world’s richest animal rights group) announced an agreement with the United Egg Producers (the nation’s largest egg trade group) to support federal legislation mandating a national shift in how egg-laying hens are housed. Both groups will support a new legal requirement for “enriched” (larger) cages by 2030. Everyone expects Congress to pass the law next year.

Just yesterday the Oregonian reported that HSUS believed an enriched cage “barely improves the quality of life for hens.” Yet today HSUS is endorsing a switch to those very cages. Did HSUS have a change of heart overnight? We doubt it.

From what we can see, the game is far from played-out.

There are a few dynamics at work here:

  • HSUS was left on the sidelines of the Oregon and Washington legislatures, both of which passed enriched-cage laws this year over HSUS’s objections. The Oregon Humane Society opposed HSUS and supported enriched cages. And the Oregon Senate Majority Leader even amended his own bill to remove support for “cage-free” systems and embrace enriched cages instead. That’s a stunning rebuke.
  • HSUS faced a significant legal challenge to California’s “Proposition 2” law. Unlike its initiatives in OR and WA, which were specifically worded to effectively ban all cage systems, Prop 2’s vague standard required only that hens have enough room to stand up, lie down, and turn around. HSUS says this means “cage-free” only, but at least one egg producer filed a lawsuit based on the belief that enriched cages meet this standard. HSUS could easily have lost the suit, nullifying a major part of Prop 2.
  • HSUS was quickly losing credibility as animal welfare advocates embraced enriched cages. The American Humane Association and the renowned Temple Grandin lauded the new furnished cage systems over a year ago. In Europe, enriched cages will become the new gold standard when conventional cages are phased out at the end of the year. And on balance, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s review of the scientific literature shows clear benefits to enriched cages.

Feedstuffs reports: “Talks between the two parties started after HSUS said it recognized that there were benefits to colonies, reversing a position that it only supported cage-free egg production systems.”

It must be truly embarrassing for HSUS—and disheartening to the group’s devoted animal “liberationists” — to have to retreat from a principled (if wacky) position and agree to support confining hens in cages for the foreseeable future.

HSUS will argue from a practical point of view that it’s doing the most good for the most number of hens at the moment, but the result will scramble its credibility in the animal rights movement.

There are also some signs that egg farmers shouldn’t be jumping for joy just yet.

Former PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich announced that his new employer, Farm Sanctuary, supports the enriched-cage legislation on practical grounds, but his group still opposes the actual enriched cages. And, of course, its leaders (like PETA’s and HSUS’s) oppose actually eating eggs of any kind.

We’ve used Friedrich before as a placeholder for HSUS. Even the radical Friedrich (who once said “blowing things up and smashing windows [is] a great way to bring about animal liberation”) is taking the practical approach here: Take an inch, but continue to push for a mile.

As HSUS “Outreach Director” Josh Balk said at the group’s 2009 annual conference, “Anyone who says that cage-free is 100% humane, 100% cruelty-free, just know that’s not accurate.”

We’re sure all of HSUS’s leaders still believe that.

HSUS will be back for egg farmers. Its stated goal is to “get rid of the industry.” But in the meantime, there are plenty of pork, beef, veal, and dairy farmers to hassle.