Born free, raised free


A Massachusetts bill promoting the raising of cage-free animals may have limited resonance in a state where there are few commercial farms practicing anything but this approach, but it could have a wider impact beyond the commonwealth's borders. That's because the measure would also have a direct effect on the eggs, veal, and pigs coming in from out of state and ending up on our grocery shelves.

Introduced late last year, the measure, if approved by voters in the fall, would ban farms and businesses in the commonwealth from producing or selling eggs from caged hens, pork from pigs raised or born in a crate, and veal coming from calves raised in small pens. The requirements would go into effect in 2022, providing time for existing businesses to change their practices.

The political machinery behind this measure includes an assortment of national and local animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Humane Society, in particular, is not new to this battlefront, having advocated gentler treatment of food-chain animals in various states during the past several years.

What is new is the inclusion of language that would prevent Massachusetts purveyors of such products from selling them, even if the food items were imported from out of state. It is this last element, not surprisingly, that has raised legitimate concerns, especially among national vendors. That’s because it would establish a significant beachhead in the ongoing animal treatment war; food corporations understandably want to avoid a patchwork of regulations that prevent them from selling some types of food in one or a handful of states. They also fear that the higher prices that would likely result from cage-free animals will dissuade some consumers, and eat into the corporations' bottom line.

In fact, a coalition of critics against the measure warns that the approach will create a ripple effect that ends with consumers facing fewer choices and higher prices at the grocery store. Such organizations as the United Egg Producers and the National Pork Producers Council have raised their voices alongside state groups, including the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, decrying the effort and pledging a well-financed opposition to the effort.

Opponents of the measure are correct in at least two ways: a ban on cage-free products will certainly reduce the number of options to consumers, who can currently choose between cage-free and cage-allowed versions. They are also right that, in general, cage-free products cost more than their caged counterparts, partly because corporate farming techniques enjoy economies of scale not present in generally smaller, cage-free operations.

However, cage-free farming often provides a healthier, more humane environment for the animals, even as they are being raised to enter the food chain. This translates into fewer diseases and less need for animal antibiotics, which in turn means that fewer of these chemicals end up arriving on our dinner plates.

The debate over cage-free animals is shaping up to be an expensive one, with both sides promising aggressive efforts. Ultimately, if passed, the measure would have little effect on Massachusetts farmers. In fact, there are currently no commonwealth farms with closely confined calves or pigs, and only one large farm producing eggs from caged chickens. Consumers, however, would see and feel a difference: They would pay higher prices, but they could take solace in the fact that the animals coming to dinner lived healthier lives before becoming our next meals.