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Lansing — Michigan farmers will get more time to provide larger living spaces for their hens under an initiative signed last week into law. 

The law would require farmers to provide cage-free environments to egg-laying hens by the end of 2024 and prevent retailers from selling any eggs from hens that aren’t housed in a cage free environment.

A 2009 law required farmers to provide larger cages by 2020, but the law signed last week would prohibit any sort of cage by 2024. 

“It’s a very competitive market and the last thing we want to do is force $650 million in operations out of our state,” said Sen. Kevin Daley, R-Lum. "We didn’t want to lose that value of the economy to our state.”  

There are no producers among the eight largest in Michigan that are completely cage-free at this time, Daley said. But those farms have been transitioning over the past several years especially as market demand for cage-free eggs has increased, Daley said. So much so that more than half of the operations at the larger egg farms have already converted to cage-free environments. 

Michigan is one of five states with cage-free laws but is the largest egg-producing state among those that have already adopted the rule. Nationwide, Michigan is sixth for egg production.

The legislation would require farmers to provide one square foot of usable floor space per hen in a given facility and allow them to roam freely within the facility. Cages would be banned.

Business owners could not sell an egg that came from a farm with 3,000 or more egg-laying hens if they knew or should have known the egg came from a facility in violation of Michigan’s cage-free law. 

It also requires farmers to provide certain amenities for the hens, such as perches, nest boxes and scratch pads and dust-bathing areas.

Violators can be taken to court to force a change, but they will not face criminal penalties. 

The original legislation requiring farmers to provide larger cages by 2020 stemmed from a 2009 push by animal rights activists who protested the treatment of hens at large egg farms, Daley said. Fearing the activism could lead to a ballot initiative, Michigan’s largest egg producers agreed to transition to enhanced cages by March 2020. 

Daley voted against the legislation while serving in the House in 2009, but he said the market has since changed, with many retailers promising to sell only cage-free eggs by 2025.

“The industry has moved forward and the marketplace is now demanding cage-free eggs,” he said. “It puts the producers in a position where they need to move forward.”

The legislation aligns with consumer demand in a "crucial and critical" state industry, said Rep. Julie Alexander, the chairwoman for the House Agriculture Committee. 

"This request was made not only by the industry but the consumers," the Hanover Republican said.

The legislation was opposed by Republican Sen. Ed McBroom, who said the 2009 legislation forced out many smaller egg producers from competing in Michigan and the new law meddled in marketplace trends. 

The new law is an effort to adapt to the market, which should have driven the changes in the first place, the Vulcan Republican said. The ban on eggs from farms using cages could violate the federal interstate commerce clause, he added. 

"We should have just allowed the farmers and the industry itself to make decisions based on good science," McBroom said. "When California moved forward with this kind of nonsense, their egg prices went significantly up. We'll see that same thing happening in Michigan.”

The legislation was applauded by animal rights groups and the agricultural industry, which said it “ends the uncertainty” surrounding the implementation date and other animal housing details. 

Throughout the state, about 8.5 million hens already live in cage-free environments, about 56% of the overall population, and an additional 6 million will move to cage-free housing by the end to next year, according to Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.

The cost of eggs eventually will balance out as retailers move the entire industry into cage-free animal housing, said Allison Brink, executive director of the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries. 

“When this law takes effect, Michigan will lead the nation in cage-free egg production as we fully safeguard both egg-laying hens and the family farms who are among the leading egg producers in the U.S.,” Brink said.

Under prior conditions, farmers could house hens in cages so small “the birds are unable to spread their wings for up to two years,” said Leah Garces, president of the nonprofit Mercy for Animals. 

“No animal, whether a hen or a dog or a pig, deserves to be locked up in a cage for months or years on end,” Garces said in a statement. “We applaud Michigan leadership for its support of this critical animal protection legislation.”

Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a similar version of Daley’s bill last year because of claims it made regarding the health benefits of an egg from a cage-free chicken versus a caged chicken.  

Experts and stakeholders found “that there are positive and negative impacts with each of the hen housing systems,” Snyder wrote in his Dec. 21 veto letter. 

“Establishing housing and production standards for non-Michigan firms selling eggs in Michigan under the pretext that traditional housing for laying hens leads to increased exposures to unsafe pathogens is incorrect,” Snyder wrote. 

The provision that Snyder targeted has since been removed from the legislation, Daley said. Democratic Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II signed it into law while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was on a trade mission to Israel. 

The cage-free provision, though notable, was just part of Daley’s bill, which brought the state’s Animal Industries Act in line with several federal laws and clarified other sections. 

The legislation required farmers to raise pigs and calves without cages and gave the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development director the ability to act quickly on animal health emergencies.

“If a health issue comes up, they need to be able to act quickly,” Daley said. “This streamlines the process.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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