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UEP and HSUS: 'Leap of faith' hatches bold new relationship

How two bitter adversaries found common ground to create a new, sustainable future for the U.S. egg business

Posted: February 7, 2013


Chad Gregory

Kenny Rodgers said it best: "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

For Chad Gregory, president and CEO of the United Egg Producers (UEP), the mindset his organization took to radically change the game in dealing with pressure from the Humane Society of United States (HSUS) wasn't quite that stark, but it was certainly part of the equation. They saw the cards on the table and knew the approach of staying in the corner and fighting was unlikely to get the result they needed.

Instead of betting high on tough odds, they chose to work together with their arch nemesis to forge a future they could live with and build on. It came with compromise, but also with the opportunity to create a promising new generation of egg farming in America and have a strong measure of control in determining what that would be.

"It was an incredible leap of faith and in my mind it was also incredible leadership," says Gregory. "All the credit goes to our board of directors, which is made up of 32 egg farmers from around the country. They chose the path and they made the tough decisions. It wasn't easy, but ultimately they saw all of the facts and believed it was the best approach for the future of our industry."

Watershed agreement

What happened is becoming the stuff of industry lore. UEP reached an agreement with HSUS to jointly lobby Congress to implement legislation for a national standard on egg production. Supporters and critics agree it was a watershed moment, dramatically changing the dynamic of industry and HSUS relations.

The build-up to that point began with the emergence of state ballot initiatives as a tool for animal activist groups to rally public sentiment and impose challenging requirements on livestock industries. The trend started with the infamous California Proposition 2 in 2008, targeting veal crates, poultry cages and sow gestation stalls.

For UEP, which represents farm families and companies that produce 90 percent of the eggs in the U.S. each year, things came to a head several years later, when it became clear the activist challenge would only continue to become more aggressive. HSUS-driven ballot initiatives involving cage requirements were active in several states that presented a dire threat to the viability of the industry.

Uniformity versus patchwork

These initiatives typically called for a ban on conventional battery cages and specified space per-bird allotments that varied by state. The inconsistency in particular was a major concern for HSUS.

"Our members felt strongly this would complicate and disrupt the free flow of eggs," says Gregory. "Egg producers wanted consistency across the country."

To get that, UEP entered a process of negotiation and compromise with HSUS and its aggressive leader Wayne Pacelle. The end result was an agreement to work together to lobby Congress to seek a federal law that would require larger cages and other "welfare-enhanced" conditions for all the nation's laying hens. The move would pre-empt state efforts to set their own standards, resulting in uniformity that would work much better for the egg industry.

"We were able to come jointly to Congress with one simple request - set one national standard for egg production, rather than a patchwork quilt of different state laws," says Gregory. "We were able to show we had worked with HSUS to make sure the standard is humane."

Works for industry, welfare

The HSUS agreed to give up on its push to ban cages entirely as part of the agreement. UEP also negotiated an allowance to phase in the new requirements over a period of 15 to 18 years. A key to the UEP approach was also that the agreement was targeted specifically to egg laying operations, so it did not affect other production systems.

While the outcome for the proposed legislation is not certain, it is currently moving through the approval process. Gregory says both UEP and HSUS are committed to stay the course.

It's an approach that has drawn accolades in some quarters, but has also come with controversy. Some other farm organizations have viewed the UEP action as caving in to a well-funded special interest group, setting a bad precedent for the broader livestock industry and opening the door for a divide and conquer strategy by a long-time opponent. But Gregory says UEP is willing to suffer the slings and arrows for what it sees as the best path away from costly unwinnable battles that would take the industry backward, toward a manageable and well-structured way forward.

"The UEP board weighed all of the options and made their best decision," says Gregory. "They saw all of the facts; they saw the potential for the future. They saw that this was a sustainable path that would allow them to pass on their family farms to the next generation coming on, and they made leadership decisions. I think history will prove those decisions were the right ones."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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