When I first saw the press release, I figured it had to be an April Fools' joke. The Humane Society of the United States, a voice of outrage against all heartless exploitation of animals, joining hands with the United Egg Producers, which represents an industry that keeps 200 million chickens in cages?
But it's true. This unprecedented partnership is asking Congress to pass a law (just introduced this week) that's supposed to improve the lives of egg-laying hens. If passed, it would be the first federal law that takes into account the emotional lives of farm animals. Specifically, it would force egg producers to build new, roomier housing for hundreds of millions of birds.
Some background: Ninety percent of America's eggs are laid by chickens that live in long rows of metal wire cages. Each cage holds about eight hens, and they're packed in pretty tightly. At the henhouse that I visited recently, owned by a family-run enterprise called JS West and Cos. in Modesto, Calif., each hen has, on average, 67 square inches — less than the area of a standard sheet of paper.
John Bedell, who's in charge of egg production at this site, says the chickens are not being mistreated. "Hear that sound?" he says. "When they're just sort of clucking away, making that sound, that's the sound of happy chickens."
To be sure, the air in this building is pretty clean (especially considering that 150,000 chickens live in it), the temperature is comfortable, and the hens don't have to worry about foxes eating them.
But ever since cages became standard in the egg industry some 50 years ago, many people have been horrified by them.
"These birds can't even spread their wings," says Paul Shapiro, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States. "These are living, feeling, sentient animals who are caught up in the food system, and at a bare minimum, they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives; not to be immobilized to the point where they can't even extend their limbs."
Despite their outrage, though, advocates of animal welfare weren't able to do much against the cages. For egg producers, the cages made economic sense. They made egg production possible on an unprecedented scale, delivering cheap eggs to consumers.
But over the past few years, the situation has changed dramatically.
The shift started in Europe. In 1999, the European Commission approved a directive that orders egg producers to give their chickens almost twice as much room. The directive finally took effect this year, on New Year's Day. Major food retailers, especially in northern Europe, have gone further, and now sell only eggs from cage-free operations, where hens run around loose in barns.
Here in the U.S., California took the lead. In 2008, voters there overwhelmingly approved a proposition that the Humane Society of the U.S. drafted. "What Prop. 2 says is that laying hens must be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs. That's it," says Shapiro. The law takes effect in 2015.
This may sound simple, but egg producers say it has created paralysis, because they have no idea what it requires. Does it mean that chickens have to be cage-free? Does it just mean bigger cages? How big is big enough? Regulators in California have provided no answers.
On top of that, similar voter initiatives passed in other states. Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, which represents companies that produce about 95 percent of the country's eggs, says it looked like the industry would have to satisfy dozens of different — as well as confusing — state requirements.
"It was going to be a nightmare, trying to produce eggs and have a free flow of eggs across state lines. So we reached out to the Humane Society and said, 'Let's have a conversation about this,' " says Gregory.
To the astonishment of many, the Humane Society was willing to talk. Shapiro says it was a chance to have an impact on the welfare of chickens all across the country, including in states where animal-rights activists weren't likely to get any new regulations passed.
In early July, the two sides announced that they had reached an agreement to jointly lobby Congress for new federal rules that would phase out all traditional chicken cages within 15 years. The law was formally introduced this week.
As a minimum, the chickens would have to be held in so-called enriched cages — a style developed in Europe. These cages are a compromise between efficient, large-scale production and letting chickens do some things that they seem to really like.
At the JS West farm, south of Modesto, one chicken house already has these cages.
I notice right away that chickens in this building have almost twice as much space as the ones I saw next door.
Jill Benson, one of the company's owners, points out other features. There are metal bars for the birds to perch on, and enclosed spaces, called nest boxes. Those spaces seem really popular among the hens.
"The birds, in fact, line up to go into the nest box," says Benson. "They like to go out of the bright light and go into a nest box to lay their eggs."
As we watch, we catch a glimpse of one chicken doing exactly that. A wet, warm egg rolls slowly out of the nest box.
Perches and nest boxes are specifically required in the new proposed law.
Benson says she wants this law to pass. Building new chicken houses would cost her company millions of dollars. But she says she can live with that. It probably works out to about an extra penny per egg. But most important: She'd know exactly what to build, and the rules would be the same across the country.
So if United Egg Producers, representing 95 percent of all U.S. egg production, wants this law and some of the industry's fiercest enemies do too, who could be against it?
Well, as it happens, some influential farm organizations. Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it.
Bill Donald, a rancher in Melville, Mont., and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says it would be a terrible precedent to get the government involved in keeping farm animals happy. Who knows what regulations might come next?
"It isn't a very large leap from egg production to chicken production to beef production," he says.
It's a situation that would have been unthinkable just a year ago: Egg farmers arm in arm with the Humane Society of the United States, in a political battle with ranchers and dairymen.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.