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Northwest lawmakers crack open egg controversy

Greg Satrum stands outside of one of the chicken houses at Willamette Egg Farms near Canby, Oregon.
Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Greg Satrum stands outside of one of the chicken houses at Willamette Egg Farms near Canby, Oregon.

The Northwest egg industry is changing the way it houses chickens. But animal rights activists in Oregon and Washington say the change isn't going far enough.

Lawmakers in both Olympia and Salem debated the welfare of egg-laying hens this year. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has already signed one bill. A similar measure has been approved by the Oregon Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Regardless, opponents in both states are launching ballot initiatives aimed at giving hens even more space.

Greg Satrum is a third-generation chicken farmer near Canby, Oregon, so he's used to the sight of chickens crammed into small cages.

His family's business, Willamette Egg Farms, is the largest egg producer in Oregon. The 65,000 hens in this building are just a fraction of the 1.2 million birds here. The vast majority of the chickens here spend their lives in cages just two feet by two feet.

And they're not in there by themselves, either. There's going to be seven or eight, typically, in each pen.

The cages are on a slight incline, so when a hen lays an egg, it rolls over to a conveyor belt. The chicken manure drops straight down to a different conveyor belt.

Water and food are brought to the cage by yet another automated system. It's an efficient set-up - and one that doesn't let the hens move around much at all.

"Cages have been the typical way to house hens for the last 60 years, says Satrum."


Out with the cages, in with the "colonies"

But after generations of doing things this way, Satrum says it's time to move on. He supports an effort underway that would dramatically change how this chicken house would look.

Hens would still be in cages, but they'd have more room. So-called colony cages would provide about twice as much space as before, when measured on a per bird basis.

But Satrum says about 60 hens would share a 48-square-foot enclosure.

"One of the benefits of the colony system is that you give the hens the freedom to move around, perch, nest and scratch."

The colony system has won supporters, even state lawmakers who initially wanted egg producers to transition to cage-free housing.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney championed a measure that would have required Oregon egg producers to install cage-free housing over the next eight years:

"I'm a softie and I admit it when it comes to animal welfare."


Some say chickens deserve better

The egg industry balked, saying the cost would bankrupt them. So the two sides agreed on colony cages as a compromise. And now that has some animal advocates fuming, including Paul Shapiro with the Humane Society of the United States:

"In a cage free environment, the birds can walk around a large barn. They have far more space, even just per bird, than they do in the colony cages. And they have the ability to engage in far more of their natural behaviors than they can in these cramped colony cages."

Shapiro says the measure also falls short because it gives egg producers 15 years to make the transition. But that's the Humane Society of the United States. The Oregon Humane Society, which is separate, believes colony cages are a reasonable compromise. Sharon Harmon is its director:

"If you really want the ideal world for hens, and you only want to buy products from that ideal world, stick to your farmers market. This is commercial poultry production that affects millions and millions of birds."

Nonetheless, the Humane Society of the United States is collecting signatures in both Oregon and Washington to put a cage-free requirement on the ballot.


Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.