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This week, an improbable partnership called on Congress. On one side, animal rights advocates. And on the same side, big egg producers. They're advocating together for a law that's supposed to improve the lives of egg-laying chickens.
As NPR's Dan Charles reports, if passed it will be the first federal law that takes into account the emotional lives of farm animals.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Ask two different people and you can get two completely different opinions about what makes a chicken feel comfortable.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
JOHN BEDELL: You hear that sound? That's happy chickens.
CHARLES: John Bedell manages egg production for JS West, a family-run farming operation in Modesto, California.
BEDELL: When they're just sort of calmly clucking away, that's what happy chickens sound like.
CHARLES: We're standing in a long, windowless, dimly lit building. It's home to a whole city of chickens: 150,000 of them in endless rows of wire cages, eight birds to a cage. On average, each hen has a little less space than a single sheet of paper. So, are they really happy?
Ask Paul Shapiro, from the Humane Society of the United States, and he says impossible.
PAUL SHAPIRO: These are living, feeling, sentient animals. And at a bare minimum, certainly they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives, not to be immobilized to the point where they can't even extend their limbs.
CHARLES: Advocates of animal welfare have been angry about chicken cages for a long time. But until recently, they couldn't do much about it. The system gives us cheap eggs. In fact, 90 percent of all the country's eggs come from chickens in cages.
But in the last few years, activists here and around the world have started to win some victories. They succeeded first in Europe. By law, Euro chickens now have more room in cages and many aren't in cages at all - they're running around loose in barns. Then, three years ago, voters in California overwhelmingly approved something called Proposition 2.
Paul Shapiro, from the Humane Society, helped write it.
SHAPIRO: Well, what Prop 2 says is that laying hens must be able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs. That's it.
CHARLES: They have to be able to do that by 2015. It sounds simple, but egg producers say they still have no idea what it requires. Does it mean chickens have to be cage-free? Does it just mean bigger cages? How big?
On top of that, similar voter initiatives passed in other states. Gene Gregory, who's president of United Egg Producers, the egg industry's biggest trade association, says it looked like the industry would have to satisfy dozens of different and confusing state requirements.
GENE GREGORY: It was going to be it was going to be a nightmare, trying to produce eggs and have a free flow of eggs across state lines. And so, we reached out to the Humane Society and said let's have a conversation about this.
SHAPIRO: And indeed, we were able to hammer out agreement to jointly lobby the Congress for new federal rules on the treatment of egg-laying hens.
CHARLES: The proposed law was introduced in Congress this week. It would require all egg producers in every state to move all of their animals out of traditional cages within 15 years. At a minimum, the chickens would have to be in so-called enriched cages - a style developed in Europe. These cages are a compromise between efficient, large-scale production and letting chickens do some things that they seem to really like.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)
CHARLES: At the JS West farm, one chicken house already has these cages. The chickens in this building have almost twice as much space as the ones I saw next door.
Jill Benson, one of the company's owners, points out other things. There are metal bars for the birds to perch on. Also, some enclosed spaces, called nest boxes, which seem really popular.
JILL BENSON: The birds, in fact, line up to go into the nest box. They like to go out of the bright light and go into a nest box to lay their eggs.
CHARLES: Jill Benson says she wants this law to pass. Building new chicken houses will cost her company millions of dollars, but she says she can live with that. It probably works out to about an extra penny per egg.
So if the United Egg Producers, representing 95 percent of all U.S. egg production wants this law and some of the industry's fiercest enemies also want this law, who could be against it?
Well, as it happens, some influential farm organizations. Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it.
Bill Donald, a rancher in Melville, Montana and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says it would be a terrible precedent. Who knows what regulations might come next?
BILL DONALD: It isn't a very large leap to go from egg production to chicken production to beef production.
CHARLES: It's a political situation that would have been unthinkable just a year ago: egg farmers, arm-in-arm with the Humane Society of the United States, doing battle with ranchers and dairymen.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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