- - Monday, May 20, 2013

There’s a new dish that’s been crafted in several Hill offices: the Congressional Omelet. It’s a fairly simple recipe — scramble a bunch of eggs and mix them with a hefty helping of bureaucratic molasses. You may soon see it at restaurants and supermarkets around the country.

The proposal, which advocates are hoping to attach to the farm bill — though it won’t be offered as an amendment in the Senate markup — would ban the most common method of housing hens and force egg farmers into costly infrastructure changes, supposedly to benefit animal welfare. The legislation is backed by both Big Egg (United Egg Producers, a trade group) and Big Animal Rights (the Humane Society of the United States, PETA’s big brother). At first glance that seems like cause for celebration. Washington doesn’t have the best record for ecumenical spirit but, in fact, it’s another story of special interests benefiting while the consumer and small farmers get the shaft.

For starters, the United Soybean Board estimates the bill for this omelet would cost consumers almost $2.76 billion. In fact, we’ve already seen the price shocks in the European Union, which started enforcing similar legislation last year. Countries experienced supply shortages as the price of eggs skyrocketed 60 percent. The European Commission is even taking Italy and Greece to court for alleged noncompliance, which could scramble the marketplace even more.

Mandating sweeping hen-housing changes will hurt smaller farmers more. They have less access to capital to make infrastructure changes. In fact, regulation is often used as a competitive weapon in business. The legislative record is littered with examples, such as General Electric lobbying for new light bulbs.

Moreover, the trouble with federal mandates is that there’s no one-size-fits-all — or even 10-sizes-fit-all — method of producing food or housing animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the nation’s leading veterinary group, analyzed research on different forms of hen-housing. The veterinary group found pluses and minuses for each method.

Birds in cages, for example, have less space, but also have lower rates of mortality and disease. In cage-free situations, birds may have more space, but are exposed to more disease vectors and suffer more cannibalistic behavior from other birds. A recent study by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply reported increased leg and wing injuries in larger cages as compared to current, conventional housing.

Previous decisions on animal housing have been made after dutiful scientific research. The United Egg Producers, however, concedes that the federal bill is not based on this model, acknowledging, “The new standard has no justifiable science.”

Consider the implications. Getting the federal government involved unwisely takes decision-making out of the hands of farmers and veterinarians, and places it with politicians. Consider the track record of waste and incompetence in Washington, including such gems as spending $141,450 for a study on pig manure. In the regulatory world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed that poultry farmers assign individual IDs to the 9 billion chickens that go to market and keep records for five years.

Moreover, replacing animal-welfare science with politics as the driving force behind animal-housing decisions opens a Pandora’s box. Bureaucrats will face pressure from animal-liberation activists to make more stringent regulations that harass farmers and increase costs even more. These groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, don’t believe using animals for food is humane, and want egg farmers out of business. A small tinkering of the regulations — say, increasing space requirement from 124 square inches per bird to 150 — could have farmers tearing their hair out. And with G-men in the henhouse, animal-liberation zealots also have a precedent to wield against other sectors of animal agriculture.

The free market provides the best model for eggs. If consumers are willing to pay more for niche markets such as cage-free, pasture-raised or organic eggs, then farmers will fill the demand. For the budget-conscious shopper, egg farmers will continue to provide a low-cost product from hens raised in accordance with the best scientific practices of the day — without any tinkering from Washington.

Will Coggin is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.