Mass. egg market about to get scrambled
Well-intended voter law will cut off out-of-state supplies
EGGS ARE A SYMBOL of birth, rebirth, and hope and are featured in recorded history of ancient cultures in Greece and China. In Massachusetts, however, eggs are currently a symbol of our fractured polity.
Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum in 2016 intended to ensure humane treatment of egg-laying hens. That law will take effect on January 1, 2022. The goal of the ballot measure was to ensure hens had adequate space. While most Massachusetts farms already comply with the new law, local eggs account for a tiny amount of total egg sales in Massachusetts.
Because the per-hen space requirement in the referendum is different from the humane standard other states and the egg industry have agreed on, when the law takes effect Massachusetts will have to outlaw the sale of almost all eggs coming from out of state. If the situation isn’t addressed, egg shelves at the start of the New Year will look like toilet paper aisles at the start of the pandemic, but egg supplies can’t be increased by addressing supply chain challenges. Eggs laid out of state will simply be illegal.
There isn’t an argument about whether to treat hens humanely, but rather about the standard used to measure humane treatment.
Many residents will be forced to cross state borders to buy their eggs. Grocers near the state’s borders will lose business. Eggs that are available will be far more costly, affecting retail consumers, Massachusetts bakers, restaurants, and all institutions with food service departments.
Compromise is needed.
My family’s egg business was located in historic Quincy Market in 1916. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a jingle my dad created in the 1970s and early 1980s, “Brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh!”
When I took over the company, I worked extremely hard to develop personal relationships with everyone that mattered to our business— farmers, suppliers, government oversight officials, and, of course, the market owners who were our customers. Like any wholesale business, commerce happens through personal interaction, discussion, argument, and agreement. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we worked through our differences in pursuit of our mutual goals. The New England Town meeting, the cornerstone of democracy, is predicated on this dynamic.
Throughout my career I’ve found that personal connections can overcome misunderstandings and even political disagreements. Working with others in the poultry business, I negotiated commercial sales to Cuba directly with Fidel Castro in 2002. When we are able to talk to each other, political and cultural disagreements can be bridged.
I had been involved in other New England states where parties quickly came together to resolve similar situations in the years prior to the 2016 referendum.
When the egg referendum was under consideration, allied parties attempted to find a solution that would respect both the desire to treat animals humanely and the need to have food on the shelves in Massachusetts markets. But the two sides were unable to find common ground.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau supports the referendum language because its members may already conform, so it’s not lobbying Beacon Hill for a fix despite the shortages we’ll see if the law takes effect. The Humane Society which helped drive the referendum effort now supports its modification, but other groups are prepared to stand in the way. The California-based Humane Farming Association told the Boston Globe in June that if the Legislature amends the law the organization will pursue another referendum to overturn the Legislature’s amendments despite the cost increases and market disruption that will result.I’m hopeful the Legislature works out the differences between compromise bills passed by the House and the Senate and sends the legislation on to the governor for signature so that Massachusetts can begin 2022 over-easy instead of hopelessly scrambled.
David Radlo is the past president of the New England Brown Egg Council and author of the upcoming book Secret Stories of Leadership, Growth, and Innovation-Sustainable Transformation for a Safer, New, and Better World.