Fearing egg shortages, Legislature updates ballot question
Advocacy group warns of 'rotten egg bill'
A HIGH-STAKES game of chicken between national interests may threaten Massachusetts’s supply of eggs and pork. The Legislature is attempting to resolve the dilemma through some Beacon Hill sausage-making, by updating a 2016 ballot question regulating the treatment of hens, calves, and pigs.
The ballot question, approved by voters five years ago and set to go into effect January 1, 2022, would prevent the sale of eggs or meat from animals that are “confined in a cruel manner.” The law lays out how much space the animals must have.
But food producers have warned that they cannot adapt to the new rules in time and the rules no longer conform to industry best practices – so letting the ballot question go into effect as written will create shortages of eggs and meat.
The question was pushed by national organizations, mainly the Washington, DC-based Humane Society of the United States. Only 5 percent of the nearly $3.5 million spent in support of the ballot question came from donors in Massachusetts. The opponents were also primarily from out of state, including a pork producers association and the founder of Lucas Oil, who created an organization to oppose animal rights “extremists.”
The ballot question has minimal impact on Massachusetts farmers. MassLive reported in 2015 that no farmers here use small cages for calves and pigs, and only one – Diemand Farm in Wendell – used cages for egg-laying chickens.
After the question passed, Diemand Farm made extensive renovations to its chicken coops, and halved its flock of birds from 3,000 to 1,500 to let them be cage-free.
The bigger issue is who can sell eggs and meat in Massachusetts. Food producers have been warning, in the words of a Boston Globe account, of a looming “egg-mageddon” if the standards go into effect and egg companies either stop selling here or reduce their flocks to comply with the space requirements.
According to Rep. Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, only 4 percent of pork products currently meet the standards laid out in the ballot question. Dykema, on the House floor, warned that failing to adjust the ballot question could exacerbate food supply shortages that already exist due to the pandemic – whether that means less bacon available to restaurants or fewer eggs for consumers. Dykema also said animal welfare standards have changed in the five years since the ballot question passed.
A bill passed by the House on Wednesday 156-1, a version of which already passed the Senate, would let laying hens be confined in multi-tier aviaries, which are now widely used. The hens would only be required to have one square foot of space per tier, as opposed to 1.5 square feet if they are housed in a single-level cage. It expands the protections to cover eggs sold in liquid or frozen form, not just shelled eggs, and clarifies an exemption related to caging hens for animal husbandry reasons. It would also extend the deadline for complying with the provisions related to pork by a year, to give suppliers time to adapt.
Dykema said the bill would “ensure [families] have continued access to nutritious food, including eggs and pork products, while we implement these important requirements around the humane treatment of farm animals.”
In a statement, the Humane Society of the United States, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other animal rights organizations that backed the ballot question said they support the bill. “As this important legislation moves through the legislative process, we look forward to working with lawmakers and the Governor to enact a law that ensures the strongest protections and animal welfare enhancements so that Massachusetts can be a national leader in preventing farm animal cruelty,” the groups said.
A standard of one square foot per tier in multi-tier aviaries is now the industry standard, so changing the law allows many producers to continue selling here, Houghton said.
But in another clear example of national interest in the issue, the main opponent of the compromise is the California-based Humane Farming Association. In an April op-ed in CommonWealth, the organization argued that letting chickens be confined in multi-tier aviaries with one foot of floor space per bird “is the outright evisceration of the law’s central and most important provision.”
In an interview, Humane Farming Association director Bradley Miller called the bill a “rotten egg bill.” He said it is “a cruel betrayal of animals and Massachusetts voters” who adopted the 1.5 square foot standard, since it allows for increased density among hens. He called threats of an egg shortage “bogus.”The Humane Farming Association also sued Attorney General Maura Healey to force her office to promulgate regulations for implementing the ballot question. That lawsuit is expected to be dismissed soon, since the final rules were promulgated October 1.
But the fight may not be over. If the bill modifying the law is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Miller said the Humane Farming Association is considering filing a referendum to put a repeal of the law back before voters.