For years, the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers have been adversaries over the treatment of the 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States.

As one might expect, the Humane Society has fought to protect hens from mistreatment — most live in cages so cramped they can’t even spread their wings, and the air they breathe is suffused with ammonia created by their own excrement — while egg producers have argued against measures that burden farmers and raise prices on a food that is an important source of nutrition.

The animal welfare group has demonstrated considerable strength in that contest. It has focused on state-by-state battles to change laws governing hens, winning a big victory in California in 2008 when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, which outlawed so-called battery cages for the state’s nearly 20 million hens.

In that campaign, we sided with farmers, as we worried that passage of the measure would leave California farmers at a financial disadvantage when their eggs had to compete against cheaper out-of-state eggs. (The legislature subsequently passed, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed, supplementary legislation forbidding the sale in California of eggs from farmers who did not fulfill the same requirements as in-state farmers.)

Tired of fighting, and faced with growing public revulsion at the conditions inflicted on hens, the egg industry has sensibly recognized that it needs to overhaul its practices. Last week United Egg Producers and the Humane Society announced that they would work together to push for federal legislation to mandate more humane treatment of all egg-laying hens in the United States. It would be the first animal welfare law to protect animals on farms.

The proposed law would replace conventional cages with much larger “colony cages,” providing a minimum amount of space per bird and allowing them natural behaviors such as perching, nesting and scratching. It would cap levels of ammonia in hen houses and outlaw the forced molting of birds by starving them. The law also would require labeling on egg cartons specifying how the hens were kept. Humane Society officials said they hoped to get a bill introduced and passed by the end of this year, though full compliance would not be required for at least 15 years.

A key component: Any eggs sold in the United States would have to be produced in compliance with this law. That would eliminate the possibility of imports of lower-priced eggs produced through cheaper, noncompliant methods of hen-keeping.

The proposed standards would create a uniform playing field, simultaneously protecting farmers and their hens. When this thoughtful, humane proposal makes its way into Congress, legislators should approve it.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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