BOSTON (State House News Service) — A collection of animal rights organizations and commercial egg farmers, once opponents, are joining forces to urge prompt reform of the state's cage-free standards law before it takes effect in January while warning of price spikes on the horizon.
In the five years since Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question setting minimum standards for how farm owners house certain animals, several other states have established cage-free regulations with different space requirements than the Bay State.
Industry representatives and several animal welfare groups, including those that ran competing campaigns ahead of the ballot question's passage, on Tuesday urged lawmakers to intervene and reform the hen-specific standards enacted by the ballot question to mirror the more common practices elsewhere that have already been embraced by producers.
Without action, they said, the impending regulations that take effect Jan. 1, 2022 will make Massachusetts an outlier compared to other states, potentially constricting the available supply of eggs.
"In eight months, there's going to be a massive shortage of eggs for Massachusetts consumers and the price is going to go really high for those eggs that are there unless we can change and pass these two laws," said Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers.
Question 3 on the 2016 ballot, which passed with nearly 78 percent of voters in support, banned Massachusetts farm owners and operators from knowingly confining breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, and egg-laying hens "in a way that prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely." It also prohibited businesses from selling whole, in-shell eggs or cuts of veal or pork produced out-of-state under those conditions.
The text of the law itself specifies that each enclosure for hens must have at least 1.5 square feet of floor space per bird.
But since that ballot question passed, seven other states have approved what Animal Legal Defense Fund and former Question 3 campaign manager Stephanie Harris called "a stronger version of that standard."
Legislation before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (H 864 / S 36) would more closely align Massachusetts with the cage-free hen requirements elsewhere, mandating cage-free systems to have dust-bathing, scratching and perching for hens.
The bill would also reduce the minimum space requirement per hen from 1.5 square feet to 1 square foot if a farm keeps the birds in a multi-tiered, vertically stacked aviary system.
Josh Balk, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, told the committee that aviary systems "weren't around much back in 2016."
"Picture a barn, and in the barn, wide bookshelves go the length of the barn," Balk said. "Instead of books, there's perches, there's areas for the birds to run, to rest, and there's ramps where the birds go up and down. All of this vertical space in a barn is used, and you know what? Chickens like it, because birds naturally do want to get off the ground and go use vertical space."
California and Rhode Island, for example, have similar single square foot space standards for hens that live in multi-tiered housing. Egg industry representatives told lawmakers on Tuesday that many producers have already begun adjusting to those specific limits.
With different limits on the books, they said, Massachusetts could become an "outlier" and face a future in which many major producers are unable to sell eggs to Bay State stores and restaurants.
"Unless adjustment is made via the bills before you, Massachusetts will be the outlier state when the 2016 law takes effect next January," William Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council that opposed the ballot question, told the Environment Committee. "There will not be nearly enough cage-free eggs for your citizens. The COVID-related shortage of eggs, which occurred a little over a year ago, was only a preview of what will happen to supermarket dairy cases and egg prices."
Several animal rights groups, including the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, threw their support behind the change, telling lawmakers that the aviary systems offer a healthier lifestyle to hens.
The bill would also extend the cage-free requirement in Massachusetts beyond whole eggs sold in their shells to include liquid, frozen or pre-cooked eggs, and it would involve the Department of Agricultural Resources in drafting regulations.
"We believe that this is a reasonable step forward to align Massachusetts law with other animal welfare initiatives across the country," said Allison Blanck, director of advocacy at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. "As we look forward to the implementation of the law in January 2022 and keep in mind that regulations are currently being promulgated, we would like to stress that time is of the essence to give clarity of standards to farms in Massachusetts."
As several speakers noted at Tuesday's committee hearing, the push has united animal welfare advocates and commercial farm representatives that previously stood at odds over the ballot question itself.
Balk said he had "never seen such an eclectic coalition working together."
Not all animal rights organizations are in agreement, however. Humane Farming Association Director Bradley Miller described the forecasts of supply shortages and price spikes as "fear-mongering," telling lawmakers that industry leaders often warn about consumer impacts when facing additional regulation.
"I have been hearing this for more than 30 years, and it has never happened," Miller said. "This is essentially extortion on the part of the egg industry, saying, 'if you maintain what your voters supported and have this standard for laying hens, we're just not going to send eggs to your state and you're all going to go hungry.'"
Both Miller and Sen. Anne Gobi raised concerns about changing the standards that voters approved. Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, told her colleagues she believes the bills would overstep the Legislature's authority and "nullify the vote of the people of Massachusetts."
"In this year especially, when we have seen attacks on voting rights, we should not be taking any action to overturn the vote of the people," Gobi said.
By Chris Lisinksi, State House News Service