Ag forum debates HSUS dealLUVERNE — Chad Gregory is not a very popular person these days, and he knows it.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
LUVERNE — Chad Gregory is not a very popular person these days, and he knows it.
Gregory, senior vice president of the United Egg Producers (UEP), appeared before dozens of farmers Tuesday night during an agricultural forum in Luverne to explain why the UEP made what most people in agriculture say is a “deal with the devil.”
It was last July 7 when the UEP — in its attempt to save the egg industry in the United States — made a deal with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to phase out battery cages for larger laying-hen pens, known in the industry as enriched colony cages.
Gregory said the industry was moving in that direction anyway, which begged the question in the audience — why, then, make a deal with HSUS?
HSUS has spent millions of dollars to challenge American agriculture and the methods used to produce food.
The fear among farm groups is that the deal will give HSUS the boost it needs to go after other farming practices, such as the use of gestation crates in pork production.
Several farm organizations worry the UEP-HSUS deal will set a precedent.
Tuesday night’s “Meeting in the Middle: The Forbidding Future of Animal Agriculture” brought together two sides of the issue — Gregory, who shed light on the UEP’s willingness to make a deal with the HSUS, and Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA) Executive Director David Preisler, who spoke on behalf of the state’s swine industry that opposes the deal.
As Gregory took the stage Tuesday night, he explained that for years he was just like the farmers in the room — he spoke out against the HSUS.
“How could anyone in agriculture come to make a deal with the devil?” he asked.
It began after HSUS targeted states where it could get ballot initiatives asking consumers to decide whether egg-laying hens should be raised in cages, sows in gestation crates and baby calves in veal crates.
By 2010, 22 states had HSUS-sponsored legislation on ballots.
It was actually two years prior, when California voters passed Proposition 2 — the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative — on a two-thirds, one-third margin that Gregory said was a critical moment for UEP.
The California legislation gave livestock producers in that state until Jan. 1, 2015, to implement specific practices requiring calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant swine to be “confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”
Exceptions were made for transportation, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research, veterinary purposes and rodeos.
Violators of the law would face misdemeanor penalties, including fines or jail time.
The UEP spent more than $10 million in advertising campaigns to try to offset the flood of negative ads generated by HSUS, said Gregory.
Supporting the animal industry were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 28 California newspapers, but Gregory said none wanted to speak out against HSUS.
After Prop 2 passed in California, HSUS targeted Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Nebraska, Florida and Massachusetts, states that have a combined egg-laying hen population of 75.5 million and represent roughly 26 percent of the U.S. egg-laying industry.
Gregory said if legislation passed in each state, there were bound to be differences that would create “logistically a major problem for the egg producers association,” much like those existing in Europe today, where some countries are cage-free, range, organic or enriched-colony cages.
Legislation there has forced many poultry and egg producing farmers out of business and has caused egg shortages in Germany.
“HSUS has $150 million a year to spend, and they want chickens raised outdoors,” said Gregory. “We have 285 million egg layers in the U.S. — 95 percent are still in cages. If HSUS continued to win … it would cost twice as much to produce a dozen eggs.”
He said when it came down to the price of fighting on principle alone — on science and consumer choices — the egg industry was going to lose the battle.
“Our battle that we would have lost would have been going from cages to cage-free, and that would have been the end of the U.S. egg industry,” he added.
Hatching an agreement
In March 2011, at a neutral zone in Arizona, Gregory had a face-to-face meeting with Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of HSUS. After years of arguing back and forth, Gregory said they spent five and a half hours discussing scenarios that might broker a deal between the UEP and HSUS.
“He was OK with enriched colony cages and ending the war with the egg industry,” Gregory said.
Their agreement, no more than a handshake and a signed document, would require enriched colony cages be installed in all egg-laying houses in the U.S. within the next 15 to 18 years. In exchange, HSUS would no longer conduct investigations or file lawsuits against egg producers.
“Eighty percent of everything built in the last two years was with enriched colony cages anyway,” said Gregory.
Between April and July 6, 2011, the UEP board voted seven times, always with a two-thirds majority, to keep pursuing talks with HSUS. The board members, representing 159 million laying hens — or 56 percent of the nation’s egg industry — kept the talks behind closed doors, giving no hint to egg producers across the country of the possible deal.
When HSUS and UEP came together July 7 in a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., they announced a petition to the federal government to enact legislation on or before June 30 requiring egg producers make the switch in cages, as well as initiate new labeling standards for eggs. The labeling would inform consumers of how the chickens that produced the eggs were raised, whether caged, enriched-colony caged, cage-free or free-range.
The legislation is part of U.S. House bill HR3798 and has the potential to be included in the 2012 federal Farm Bill. Gregory said federal law is needed to ensure both HSUS and the UEP stand by their mutual agreement.
Fallout from the agreement was quick and harsh. Approximately 170 UEP growers were blindsided by the announcement, learning of it through a mass email from UEP just 15 minutes before the press conference, Gregory said.
“You could imagine, our membership was irate. If you’re a pork producer, you’re mad about this, but if you’re an egg producer, your own association threw you under the bus” he said. “In July, August and September, we were in total damage control, just to keep everybody from killing us.”
The change in cages alone is estimated to cost the industry $4 to $5 billion over the next 15 to 18 years.
Today, it’s not just the egg producers, but major farm organizations including the National Pork Producers, the National Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau, who are angered by the UEP-HSUS deal.
“I don’t disagree with any of their opposition — if I was in any of their industries, I would be opposed to it as well,” Gregory said. “I guess it comes down to our perspective. Do you want us to throw the legislation away … and eventually end up with no cages, and if we have no cages, we have no industry and we buy our eggs from Brazil?
“Just try to understand that this is a survival thing for the U.S. egg producers,” he added.
Gregory said because of legislation HSUS was successful in getting passed in some states, the egg industry had already taken a 26 percent drop in growers. Lawsuits and bankruptcies threatened to run the industry out of business.
“HSUS is committed to this for 150 years,” he said. “This is a national security issue. One day, all our food will come from outside the country, and then all they have to do is turn the spigot off.
“If we can’t pass this legislation, that is what will happen in the egg industry. Your eggs will be coming from Brazil and Mexico,” he added.
Preisler, representing Minnesota’s pork industry, took the stage after Gregory faced a barrage of questions. He reminded those in attendance to remember “there are two sides to every story.” While there have been some missed opportunities, he said, “I don’t think it’s too late.”
The consensus he gathered from Gregory’s talk was that the UEP has given up — that “there is some quit” in the industry. He was also quick to point out that Minnesota’s Broiler and Egg Association (BEAM) opposes the UEP-HSUS agreement and the legislation.
“Minnesota is the eighth- largest egg producer in the state,” Preisler said. “Iowa is the first, and they have made no statement in favor.”
Minnesota and Iowa are among 26 states in the country that don’t have the ballot initiative process, meaning HSUS would not be able to come in and place legislation on a ballot in any of those states.
“The government’s job is to protect public health, but after that, it’s consumer choice,” said Preisler. He said with ballot initiatives, consumers really don’t understand what it is they’re voting on.
In California, for instance, more than 60 percent of voters approved Proposition 2, yet 97 percent of all eggs sold in California are produced by hens in cages. People say they want one thing, but in the grocery store, it ultimately comes down to what they’re willing to pay for food.
Preisler went on to explain what has occurred in Europe, where the European Union established requirements in 1999 that took effect on Jan. 1 of this year.
“Eggs there are up 150 percent to 400 percent,” Preisler said. “Farmers there (got out of the business) — they didn’t see a future in what they were doing.”
If the cost of food increases in the United States because of this legislation, it will most affect those who spend the greatest share of their income to feed their families.
“If we’re going to talk about the moral and ethical thing to do, we need to first think about our neighbors,” Preisler added. “To have the government come in to work with a bully (HSUS) because of an agency (UEP) that’s obviously quit, that’s a moral, ethical problem for me.”
He said the UEP wasn’t driven to make the deal just for hens — part of it was to “get out of some of the legal issues they’ve been in.”
Preisler also said the CEOs making the decisions today won’t be around in 15 to 20 years.
“You are the ones to clean up the mess,” he said as he looked out at the audience. “We are in something that’s a very serious fight with HSUS — they lie, they’re relentless …”
Preisler said livestock producers need to “reach out and talk with” consumers about the work they do to create a safe, abundant food supply.
“I think we’re in a better place in terms of messaging than we were a year ago,” he added.
With the egg industry making its decision to settle, he said the spotlight is now on the pork industry.
“(The UEP-HSUS agreement) is a precedent, and that’s why the folks I work for are dead-set against it,” he added. “The United Egg Producers is the one who made the decision to divide (agriculture). That’s our perspective on it.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.