Land O’Lakes has agreed pay $25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that the multi-billion dollar agricultural cooperative conspired with farmers to fix egg prices, according to Reuters, covering a period of egg industry abuse that dates back to at least 2000.
According to United Egg Producers (UEP), the nation’s biggest egg trade association, every year about 80 billion eggs are produced in the United States, with the average American consuming 246 of them.
Ninety-seven percent of America’s hens spend their entire, miserable lives in 7″x7″ wired battery cages. And those that aren’t in cages aren’t faring much better. Unfortunately, the term “cage-free” has no legal meaning. It’s merely a euphemism for “high-density floor confinement.”
The term “free-range,” on the other hand, is regulated by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA). But the term is almost meaningless. All farmers have to do to put that label on their eggs is to abide by one simple, open-ended and non-descript USDA rule: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
The USDA doesn’t stipulate anything more. No minimum size for the outside space. No minimum time spent outside. No actual time outside is necessary — just “access.” No specification for the kind of surface that the birds can access in this vague “outside” area.
In 2008, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTP) alleging that the member corporations of the UEP created an animal welfare program to cover up “what strongly appears to be a national price-fixing scheme that drove the price of eggs to historic highs, inflating agribusiness company profits to never-before-seen levels. In the state of Ohio alone, egg prices shot up 77 percent in 2007.”
Animal welfare program? Apparently the UEP members are nothing if not ironic.
Following the HSUS filing, egg buyers filed 21 class action lawsuits alleging federal antitrust law violations against UEP and its members, including 13 of America’s largest egg factory farmers: Rose Acre Farms, Cal-Maine, Ohio Fresh Eggs, Michael Foods, Land O’Lakes, NuCal and Moark.
According to an HSUS statement, “egg industry leaders squeeze birds into small cages, and then squeeze American consumers through anti-competitive practices, while falsely and brazenly representing themselves as defenders of American consumers against the modest reform efforts of animal advocates. That’s the very definition of duplicity.”
On July 6, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark egg bill (A.B 1437) that affects egg producers across the country. The new law stipulates that all eggs sold in California must come from “hens able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and fully extend their wings without touching each other or the sides of cages,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Californians have made it clear that they don’t want unsafe eggs from hens crammed into cages, and we applaud the Legislature and governor for heeding this call,” Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said in a statement.
Between the settlements and the new legislation, positive changes in the lives of hens — albeit modest — reveal that more and more Americans aren’t content to go easy on just how that over-easy got to their plates.