Viewpoint: Farm ballot codifies progress as policy


Question 3 on this year’s Massachusetts ballot is hailed by advocates for animal protection and food safety as a major step forward on both issues. The measure would ensure that farm animals are given enough space to stand up, turn around, and extend their limbs. The impetus for this measure is the fact that some “factory farms” still essentially immobilize pigs, chickens, and calves in highly restrictive cages. This results in both animal suffering and the proliferation of dangerous food-borne bacteria. But as with any reform, we need to consider the financial effects — and Question 3 makes sense economically as well as ethically.

Question 3 parallels, and codifies, how the market is already moving. Over the past several years, more than 200 of the world’s leading food companies have pledged to phase the intensive confinement of farm animals out of their supply chains, including cost-conscious companies like Dollar Tree, Walmart and Taco Bell. And the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts farmers have already gone cage-free. These are heartening trends, but it’s critical to solidify the progress via public policy.

Opponents of the measure overstate the cost. Egg-industry studies show that it costs only 1 to 2 cents more per egg to use cage-free housing. McDonald’s has publicly stated that its conversion to 100 percent cage-free eggs won’t cause it to raise its prices even a penny. An Iowa State University study found that it can actually cost 11 percent less not to confine female pigs in tiny, solitary crates. And the American Veal Association “recommends that the entire veal industry convert to the group-housing methodology,” acknowledging the economic feasibility of doing so. Some retailers charge a premium for cage-free meat and eggs because they know certain consumers will pay it, but that premium would evaporate once cage-free is the norm.

Certain meat and egg producers are externalizing enormous costs, with animals and consumers paying the price. For example, the FDA estimates that 79,000 Americans are sickened every year by consuming eggs tainted with salmonella. This is why the Center for Food Safety and the Consumer Federation of America urge a “yes” vote on Question 3. The economic costs of these illnesses, in the form of hospital bills, absenteeism and lost productivity are enormous.

This measure would help responsible farmers now and all of agriculture in the long run. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans are losing trust in the food system. Question 3 would help restore that confidence, which is one reason more than 100 Massachusetts farmers and the United Farm Workers have endorsed it.

As a businessman, I believe that caution is needed when enacting rules affecting private enterprise. But this is clearly a time when common-sense regulations such as Question 3 are wise. We have a moral duty to treat animals with decency, and we can no longer accept putting our families at heightened risk of food poisoning. Question 3 would allow us do so with minimal economic disruption and with significant economic benefits. This measure deserves the support of Massachusetts’ business community.

Bob Mahoney is president and CEO of BSB Bancorp and Belmont Savings Bank.