Why did the chicken cross Old Santa Fe Trail?

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

To lobby at the Roundhouse in support of legislation that would create a better living environment for egg-laying hens.

A bill that prompted a couple of lawmakers to do a double-take and then crack some jokes after it was introduced last week would prohibit large commercial egg producers from selling eggs in New Mexico if they came from caged chickens.

Senate Bill 347, dubbed the Confinement of Egg-Laying Hens Act, also would require cage-free chickens on any operation with more than 3,000 hens in New Mexico, of which currently there are none. “When the bill was introduced, I knew what the reaction would be, and the first reaction was, ‘Here come the chicken jokes,’ ” the sponsor, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said Friday. “Well, in all reality … cage-free hens that are raised to lay eggs, this is going to be part of a wave of the future.”

Animal rights advocates agree, saying New Mexico is spreading its wings and following in the path of other states, including neighboring Colorado, which already have passed similar legislation. “For years, there’s been a battle going on between the egg industry and animal protection organizations,” Josh Balk, vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in an email. “It’s tremendous progress that we have found common ground with cage-free legislation that improves the living conditions of egg-laying hens while also ushering in an economically sustainable, smooth transition to meet evolving consumer expectations.”

According to the Humane Society, Colorado became the seventh state in the nation last year to ban cages for egg-laying hens.

Corporations have taken stock, too. Large retailers and food producers, such as Walmart, McDonald’s and General Mills, also have flocked to cage-free eggs.

“There has been a regional wave of legislation in Western states and commitments by major restaurant and grocery chains to move to using only cage-free eggs, and now the commercial egg industry itself is actually seeking an equal application of cage-free laws in the region so that they have better market stability and predictability in order to keep supply chains running and costs down,” said Jessica Johnson, chief government affairs officer of Animal Protection of New Mexico and Animal Protection Voters.

“Of course, Animal Protection Voters is interested in the humane benefit for the millions of regional egg-laying hens whose living conditions would be improved,” Johnson added. “Instead of living in cramped wire cages, hens would be in large barns or aviaries that let them stretch their wings, perch, scratch and dust-bathe and lay eggs in nesting boxes.”

The proposed legislation, however, has scrambled up some concerns.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed the discrepancy in prices at the grocery store for cage-free eggs versus conventional, but in a poor state like New Mexico, that’s one of the largest concerns that we have because people, you know, look to eggs as an affordable source of protein,” said Tiffany Rivera, governmental affairs director for the Las Cruces-based New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

Cage-free eggs do, in fact, cost more. On Sunday at Walmart, for example, a generic brand of a dozen eggs cost $1.21 compared with $3.42 for a brand-name carton of cage-free eggs. The possibility New Mexicans would have to shell out more money for eggs has at least one lawmaker crying foul.

“I just find that an extremely interesting bill that Sen. Campos has, and I’m anxious to hear the testimony,” Sen. Stuart Ingle, a Republican from Portales, which has an agriculture-based economy, said after the bill was introduced.

“This is in no jest,” Ingle added. “This will add to the cost of eggs in an unbelievable fashion.”

Chad Smith, CEO of the state’s Farm and Livestock Bureau, agreed, saying the bill may not be all it’s cracked up to be. “Obviously, every state is different,” he said. “We’re a state of poverty. I mean, it’s a reality. And when you pass legislation like this, you’re going to eliminate choices for consumers. You’re going to drive up the cost of this high protein item, so that’s the realistic economic factor of this. It’s ultimately going to impact the choices that consumers have and the cost that they’re going to pay at the grocery store.”

Jerry Wilkins contends consumers won’t be shell-shocked at the register.

Wilkins, who is the sales director of Morning Fresh Farms, a Colorado-based egg producer with more than 1 million hens, said the cost would level out when cage-free eggs become an industry standard instead of a speciality product. “Unfortunately, there are heavy markups in any specialty, or some people may call them, designer eggs. That is the cage-free, the organic, the free range, the pasture-raised, the nutritionally enhanced,” he said. “But what will occur is cage-free will become the commoditized egg on the shelf.”

About 30 percent of all eggs produced and marketed in the U.S. today are from cage-free hens, he said. “What this will do is it’ll expand the utilization or the availability of cage-free, and we all know economics 101: The more available these eggs become, the cheaper they become,” he said.

But cage-free eggs, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as eggs “laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses,” are still expected to cost more, though Wilkins called it a “nominal cost.” 

“We’re looking at no more than 1 to 2 cents more to produce a caged egg than a cage-free egg,” he said.

Morning Fresh Farms is among five large egg producers advocating for New Mexico to adopt cage-free standards.

Wilkins said the reasons for the push are “multifaceted.”

In addition to leading to more humane treatment of chickens, “it’s going to allow us to have a better understanding and give us certainty as to what is the regulatory environment for producing and selling eggs in the state,” he said. “So from a distributor standpoint, it gives us that confidence that we know regulation and we know how to build for that regulation over the next few years.”

That certainty, he said, could potentially lead egg producers to consider locating facilities in New Mexico.

“One of the toughest things to get into agriculture today is understanding what the landscape will look like in the future and to build towards that and invest,” he said. “For instance, a million bird complex costs about $30 million to construct, so that’s a huge investment to take a leap of faith if you don’t know what the regulatory environment is actually going to look like in a state.”

Smith, the head of the Farm and Livestock Bureau, questioned why out-of-state interests are trying to “dictate” lawmaking in New Mexico.

“It’s troublesome to see these out-of-state interests come into New Mexico and try to tell New Mexicans how they’re going to produce the food, fiber and fuel that we all rely so heavily upon,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re anticipating opening up operations here in New Mexico — we have no idea.”

Raymond Johnson, director of standards and consumer services at the state Department of Agriculture, confirmed New Mexico doesn’t have any commercial egg production. He said there are 62 egg dealers licensed to bring eggs into the state, though he didn’t know how many sell cage-free eggs. “We don’t track that information,” he said.

Under Campos’ bill, the Department of Agriculture would have to ensure compliance of the law, a provision Johnson said the department is analyzing. “We’re actually reaching out to some of our counterparts in other states with this type of legislation to see how it affected them and what they’re doing as far as compliance,” he said.

The bill calls on the department to certify that eggs and egg products comply with the law.

Campos touted the benefits of his bill, from the humane treatment of chickens to possible economic development opportunities for the state. “I’ve been around doing this long enough to know which are the bills, you know, that get [joked about], and I knew this session, this is going to be the one,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s a very serious issue, and it does deal with our nutrition, protein and something that we all depend on, and those are eggs.”