Food & Power: New Iowa Egg Bill Would Block Grocers from Selling Only Cage-Free​ Eggs

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New Iowa Egg Bill Would Block Grocers from Selling Only Cage-Free​ Eggs

Kroger, Albertson’s and Walmart are just a few of the big U.S. grocers that have committed to transitioning to sell only cage-free eggs over the next decade. But a bill in Iowa would block grocers from going entirely cage-free in the state, a move that illustrates the power of the factory farm egg industry in the country’s biggest egg-producing state.

Animal welfare, sustainability, and anti-factory farm advocates have successfully driven many food retailers to commit to selling only cage-free eggs. The have also led successful campaigns to get individual states – including Massachusetts and California – to ban the sale of eggs from hens raised in small cages.

But the cage-free shift represents a threat to the biggest egg producers, whose current business model relies on eggs produced by hens kept in small cages inside massive, industrial barns. Advocates say that Iowa’s House Bill 2408 represents big poultry’s response to the shift. With the Iowa bill in hand, the industry may now seek to pass similar bills in other states.

Both houses of the state legislature have passed the legislation, and it is expected that Governor Kim Reynolds will sign it. That means grocers that have committed to selling only cage-free eggs in the future would be required to carry conventional eggs as well. The legislation achieves this by requiring any store participating in WIC, a federal supplemental food program, to stock conventional eggs if they also stock “specialty eggs,” like those that are cage-free.

The bill’s supporters argue the law would ensure low-income Iowans’ access to a cheap form of protein. Non-conventional eggs are usually more expensive than the conventional ones. A USDA survey of egg prices in the Midwest showed that a dozen cage-free white eggs averaged a cost of $1.50, while a dozen conventional grade A white eggs averaged a price of $1.38.

But critics argue that there are many other ways to achieve the same ends.“If [lawmakers] really think this is about helping single moms feed their families, then they have been bamboozled,” says Jess Mazour of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Iowa state Rep. Sharon Steckman, who helped lead opposition to the bill, says the Iowa government could instead have expanded food benefits or other social services for poor families.

The real goal of the legislation, Steckman says, is “to minimize the small farmer, in kind of an underhanded way, using the premise of poor people buying food.”

Cage-free, organic, and free-range eggs have become more popular in recent years. As of October 2017, cage-free hens represented 15.8% of the U.S. egg-laying flock, up from only 5% in 2005. Moreover, as cage-free eggs become more popular, observers including Walmart expect the product to become cheaper. Thousands of small farmers have invested in the equipment necessary for raising cage-free hens, and competition among manufacturers continues to drive down the price of the cage-free chicken barns.

Since the 1980s, big factory farm poultry corporations, like Rose Acre Farms and Cal-Maine Foods, have consolidated extensive control over the U.S. egg industry. Cal-Maine has acquired twenty companies since 1989, owing to its current position, and just last year, the firm acquired Happy Hen Egg Farms in Texas. In so doing, they’ve turned the egg industry from one divided among several thousand farmers into one dominated by several huge corporations, each of which control millions of hens.

“Basically this bill is another way to prop up the factory farm industry,” says Mazour of CCI.

The Iowa Farm Bureau is a leading campaign donor and lobbyist in the state. Indeed, Rep. Lee Hein, the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee who introduced the legislation that became the new egg bill, counts the Iowa Farm Bureau as his largest campaign donor aside from the state Republican Party.

The fight against factory-farm raised eggs is not the only fight in Iowa against industrial agriculture. In the last few years, citizens in more than one-fifth of Iowa’s counties have taken action to fight new factory farm operations. And several of those groups have found success. In September, Iowa Select, the state’s biggest pork processor, withdrew applications for new hog confinements in Clay and Wayne Counties, after local residents organized against them. More recently, local residents delayed the construction of a factory farm expansion in Hardin County.

What We’re Reading

· Antitrust officials at the Department of Justice are reportedly unsatisfied with the sell-offs that Bayer has proposed in its bid to win approval for its takeover of Monsanto. A decision by the government on the deal is likely still months away, but the government’s concerns could further delay or even block the merger, first announced in 2016. Food & Power reported on the competition issues posed by Bayer’s planned sell-off in our last issue.

· Big agribusiness is taking over the USDA’s National Organic Program, according to organic farmers and sustainability advocates. Big ag interests are pushing for the USDA to ease certain organic guidelines, and in response, some organic farmers are moving to abandon the USDA organic label altogether. As organic food has grown more popular, big consumer brands like General Mills have gotten into the business of making and selling organic products, but that – combined with the importation of “organic” foods from other countries with laxer standards – has the effect of diluting the value of the organic label which benefits many small farmers.

· More than half of the fresh fruit and nearly a third of fresh vegetables in American supermarkets are imported, The New York Times reports in a story looking into the trend. Whereas 23 percent of fruit eaten in the U.S. in 1975 was imported, today 53% of all fresh fruit comes from abroad, driven by a USDA that has issued around 100 new rules to allow the importation of fresh fruits and vegetables. But, the rise in importation means more carbon emissions and a greater risk of introducing new, invasive pests to the U.S. Nonetheless, the trend continues – the USDA predicts that produce importance will grow 45% between 2016 and 2027.

About the Open Markets Institute

The Open Markets Institute promotes political, industrial, economic, and environmental resilience. We do so by documenting and clarifying the dangers of extreme consolidation, and by fostering discussions of ways to reestablish America’s political economy on a more stable and fair foundation.

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