WEB EXTRA: District passes legislation to label eggs from caged chickens

Pending legislation in the D.C. City Council would require retailers to display signs stating which eggs are from caged chickens.

Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham proposed the Increased Consumer Information for the Sale of Eggs Act, which, if passed, would be the first of its kind in the nation. The bill is currently in the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs committee where Graham sits.

Before its removal, District Market in the J Street basement carried cage-free eggs exclusively, said Executive Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz. He added that District Market Express does not carry eggs and would therefore be unaffected by the legislation.

Graham said that his motivation for this issue is two-fold. He sees it as an animal rights issue as well as a “consumer information and empowerment” issue.

“Consumers, if given the knowledge and the choice of what type of eggs they want,” Graham said, “they are going to choose eggs that were hatched under humane conditions.”

Opposition to caged hens is not a new issue, as many national chains including Ben and Jerry’s have already banned the use or sale of caged eggs.

Graham has a record for promoting animal rights legislation, authoring such acts as the Freedom from Cruelty to Animals Protection Amendment Act of 1999, which made any intentional harm against animals in the District a felony.

Graham cited the potential “economic impact” of sending consumers into Maryland or Virginia to buy eggs as a reason for not banning caged eggs entirely. Giving the consumer the choice will “let market forces prevail,” which Graham hopes will put greater pressure on the industry to allow chickens more humane environments.

A dozen cage-free eggs are $1 to $2 more expensive than eggs from caged hens, according to Safeway’s Web site.

Graham sees the act as a minimal burden on retailers, which he cites as “part of the beauty of the legislation.”

“What does a simple sign cost? What’s the big deal?” Graham asked.

Bill Greer, director of communications for the Food Marketing Institute, said Graham’s proposal would “set a very bad precedent.”

“Are we then going to have to put signs in our stores to say what foods are not kosher, what foods are not organic, etc.?” he said.

The institute, which represents 75 percent of the food retail industry in the U.S., including Safeway, would oppose the legislation if it were passed, Greer said.

He added that the proposal is unnecessary because cartons of caged-hen eggs are already labeled and cage-free eggs are already provided by retailers with enough demand for them.

“The purpose of this legislation is to inform consumers; they already have that information,” Greer said. “If you want to debate the welfare of chickens I don’t think that debate should be waged in the aisles of supermarkets.”

Graham said chicken welfare has wide public support, especially from animal rights groups like the Humane Society.

Law professor Joan Schaffner, co-founder of the school’s animal rights group, said although she has not heard of Graham’s legislation, she is encouraged by the idea.

“I think it is a very important and necessary step in the right direction – towards protecting the most neglected animal community in this country, poultry used for food,” Schaffner wrote in an email.

She said informing consumers will raise awareness of the conditions to which egg-laying hens are exposed. She added that the legislation is not likely to pass.

“The farm industry has tremendous resources and lobbying power and has been successful in preventing the enactment of laws that would regulate their industry.”

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