Female Farmers 4

Donna Bruce holds an egg laid by one of her chickens.

PHOENIX — Arizona shoppers could end up having to pay more for eggs as state lawmakers look to protect the state’s major producer from an animal-rights initiative drive.

Legislation given preliminary approval Tuesday by the state House would mandate that, beginning next year, major egg-laying operations have to provide at least 1 square foot — 144 square inches — of space for each hen. Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, said that compares with the current standard of 66 square inches.

But the real change would be in 2025 when the affected companies would have to go to cage-free operations. That can, but does not have to, mean actually allowing them outdoors.

More significant, HB 2724 would preclude the sale of eggs in Arizona that did not come from cage-free hens.

That prospect concerned Chelsea McGuire who lobbies for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

During a committee hearing, she told lawmakers that a local grocery chain was charging $2.59 a dozen for cage-free eggs. By contrast, those without that designation were selling for $1.49.

“That is the kind of price increase that Arizona consumers will not have a choice to avoid if this legislation goes forward,” McGuire said.

But her organization found itself up against Hickman’s Family Farms, the state’s largest producer.

Company president Glenn Hickman said it’s not that he particularly wants new state regulation of how he does business. But he said the potential alternative was worse: the threat of an initiative by the Humane Society of the United States which, if approved by voters, would mandate cage-free production — and on a much more aggressive schedule.

“We don’t want to see a proposition come to this state and leave us out of the process,” Hickman said. And this, he said, is hardly a far-fetched possibility.

His prime exhibit was Proposition 204. That 2006 ballot measure pushed by the Humane Society, which is unrelated to local humane societies, outlawed the use of “gestation crates” to confine calves and pigs.

Hickman called it just “pure luck” that his laying hens weren’t part of that successful initiative.

Kellye Pinkleton, senior state director of Humane Society, said that Hickman’s concerns are not misplaced. She told Capitol Media Services that her organization worked with Hickman’s firm to come up with this compromise.

“And if this bill were to become law, we would have no interest in pursuing new Arizona legislation regarding egg-laying hens,” she said.

“This is a truce,” said Hickman’s lobbyist Joe Sigg.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, wasn’t buying it. And he had a warning for Hickman and others who are backing HB 2724 based on the promises of the Humane Society.

“It’s very dangerous for us to cow to an organization that is not going to stop (its efforts) by trying to insert into law their demands and then hope they go away,” he said.

Grantham also worried about the costs to Arizona consumers.

Hickman told lawmakers that the price is set by retailers. But during a committee hearing he provided no specifics on the price difference he charges retailers between cage-free and other eggs.

Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, said she feared that the law would create a de facto duopoly for Hickman’s and Rose Acre Farms, the other major producer, with the prohibition against the sale of eggs from caged hens. But Hickman said that eggs “travel very well” and out-of-state operations with cage-free operations would remain free to ship their eggs here.

Small egg producers — those with fewer than 3,000 hens — also would be locked out of the Arizona commercial market.

While they would be exempt from the the requirement for cage-free operations they would not be able to sell their eggs to commercial groceries. But Dunn said they would remain free to offer their eggs at places like farmers’ markets.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said his objections were more basic.

“Why does government need to get involved in private business decisions?” he asked.

Cook, who is a cattle rancher, said those in his industry manage to come up with certification standards, such as for grass-fed beef, without any state mandate.

McGuire took issue with the whole premise that cage-free hens are happier hens.

She said conventional cages “make sure that chickens and safe and healthy.” And she argued that the mortality rate among cage-free hens is twice that of those confined to cages.

The measure still needs a final roll-call vote before going to the Senate.