Where do your eggs come from?
A fresh dispute is brewing between animal rights and agriculture over a ballot initiative that would prohibit the confinement of pigs, calves and chickens, and prohibit the sale of meat and eggs in Massachusetts from animals that have been confined.
"This initiative really speaks to some very basic standards in terms of animals being able to stand up, lie down, turn around," said Mary Nee, president of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. "This is pretty fundamental."
But Richard Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said the main impact will be to drive up food prices for Massachusetts shoppers. "This isn't going to affect the farms of Massachusetts. This is going to affect the public and the cost of food," Bonanno said.
Supporters of the ballot initiative announced Wednesday that they had collected 133,000 signatures, apparently enough to get a question on the 2016 ballot. The Massachusetts initiative would go further than any similar law in the country.
Although the Legislature could take action before then, preempting the ballot question, lawmakers have declined to act on similar bills in previous legislative sessions. Speaking to reporters recently, Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, all declined to take a stance on the ballot question.
"Massachusetts is far ahead of many other states in that we only have one facility where this is a question ... I'm not sure if this that much of an issue here in Massachusetts," DeLeo said.
Nationwide, 10 states have banned the practice of confining calves raised for veal, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens in small cages. The part of the question prohibiting extreme confinement would have limited impact in Massachusetts, which has mostly family farms and not large scale breeding of pigs or calves. No farmers here use small crates for confining pigs or calves. Only a single farm cages chickens.
"It doesn't impact a lot of our animals," said Carrie Chickering-Sears, extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Supporters of the ballot initiative, however, say it is still important both for the chickens on that one farm and to prevent other farms from confining animals. "It's really important to ensure that does not happen in Massachusetts in the future, and the values of Massachusetts voters to have animals lead decent lives on farms is reflected in the laws," said Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The far bigger impact would be from the part of the ballot question that would prohibit the sale of eggs, uncooked veal or uncooked pork from an animal that was confined.
"You can't supply all of our consumers here in the state with actual Massachusetts-grown products as far as beef and eggs," Chickering-Sears said.
The proposed law would severely limit the sale of meat and eggs imported from out of state, which accounts for the vast majority of meat and eggs sold here. So far, only California has passed a law banning the sale of non-cage-free eggs, and no state has banned the sale of veal or pork from confined animals.
Bonanno, who opposes the initiative, said this would significantly drive up prices. For example, he said most eggs bought in the supermarket today cost less than $3 a dozen. Cage-free eggs produced in Massachusetts are generally sold for at least $5 a dozen. The price of eggs rose in California after its cage-free egg law passed.
"This is about hunger. This is about food supply. This is about the public," Bonanno said.
Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society of the United States and campaign manager for the ballot question, countered by citing a University of California study done for the egg industry finding that moving to cage-free eggs would cause only a penny per egg price increase to produce.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nov. 27 weekly summary of egg prices, a dozen USDA Grade A white eggs cost an average of $1.86 nationwide; a dozen cage-free eggs cost $3.05.
Supporters of the initiative, many from animal rights organizations, say the bottom line is about treatment of animals – ensuring that animals are not confined to the point that they cannot stretch their legs. "Right now, farm animals are kept in close confinement, crammed in cages so small they can't turn around. This ballot measure will go a long way to improving their welfare," Harris said.
But opponents question the initiative's consequences. Michael Austin, owner of Austin Brothers Valley Farm in Belchertown, said, "The people that are bringing this question up aren't understanding the ins and outs of farming." He said there can be legitimate reasons to confine animals. (The ballot initiative has some exceptions – for example, it allows the confinement of pigs that are nursing, who may otherwise hurt their babies.)
Bonanno said he believes the Humane Society is pushing a "pro-vegan agenda" and will use the Massachusetts ballot question primarily to raise money from Massachusetts donors.
Chickering-Sears is part of a group promoting legislation sponsored by State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, to create a Livestock Care and Standards Board to set standards for things like animal confinement. The board, she said, would create a local governing board to regulate the industry that takes into account animal rights activists' concerns as well as the interests of farmers, consumers and others.