On the first day of 2012, a law that was finalized in 1999 in the European Union finally went into effect, banning the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens. While some farmers have moved to cage-free systems in response to the new rule, most have switched to "enriched" cages that allow hens more room with nests and perches.
Both options are an improvement from the industry-norm battery cages – cramped cages that don’t let the hens do a lot of their natural activities (like turning around easily). Despite having 12 years to get used to the idea, some countries have slacked on enforcing the change. The European Commission, according to Food Safety News, "has announced plans to take legal action against the 13 countries not enforcing the rule." Germany, on the other hand, banned the practice back in 2007.
With challenges yet to overcome, the EU is still way ahead of the United States. It's been a slow state-by-state battle to ban battery cages in the U.S., recently stopped in July 2011 after the Humane Society of the United States and the country's main egg industry group (United Egg Producers) announced an agreement to push for national regulations that would improve hen cage conditions. According to The New York Times, they still need to obtain support from Congress, and it would be another 18 years before the industry is able to phase in the proposed changes.
Similarly, a ban in the EU on gestation crates for pigs will go into effect next year, while the U.S. has yet to enact national legislation of the sort. Should we be all that surprised that the U.S. is trailing behind on this one? Europe always seems to be several steps ahead when it comes to food integrity:
- The EU has placed a ban on the use of the chemical BPA in baby bottles, but the FDA only showed consideration for such a ban in the U.S. after the American Chemistry Council explained to the agency in September 2011 that most of the industry stopped using BPA in baby bottles anyway. As of right now, no federal ban exists.
- Labeling for genetically engineered food is required in the EU, but consumer advocates are still battling on that front here in the states. The director of Food, Inc., Robert Kenner, released a new video this week in support of the Just Label It - We Have a Right to Know campaign, whose coalition sponsors petitioned FDA in October 2011 to label GE foods.
A major reason the EU has stayed ahead of the game is the fact that it adheres to the precautionary principle, which “enables rapid response in the face of a possible danger to human, animal, or plant health, or to protect the environment.” Even if conclusive science is lacking, the possibility of harm allows policymakers to take precautionary measures. The burden of proof that an action or policy is not harmful is placed on the industry or group taking the action. In the United States, it’s typically the other way around.
Here, industry interests seem to reign supreme over consumer values and public health, as seen by the lack of regulatory action in the U.S. federal government until the corporations say it's okay. Consumer groups, citizen activists and whistleblowers remain vital in holding agribusinesses and food companies accountable, as we push our administration to get up to speed with our neighbors overseas.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.