In the U.S. eggs, measured by the number Americans eat and changing industry standards, are big ticket items. A ballot question in Massachusetts would make it illegal to sell veal, pork or eggs from animals who’ve been confined to crates or cages of a certain size. Other New England states have already adopted some farm-animal welfare regulations concerning pigs or calves. But not regarding chickens.
The arguments on both sides of this issue can be compelling. In a recent NEPR debate on Question 3, Diane Sullivan from the group Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice said her opposition is to the ballot question is about protecting consumer rights.
“I’m encouraging the voters of Massachusetts to look at the other side of Question 3,” Sullivan said. “What are the social injustices here? And what will the economic impact be?” Sullivan asked. It will be dire, she said, answering her own question.
The cost of eggs will go way up, according to the opposition group’s website, citing a Cornell University study which projects the cost of eggs, along with pork, will increase by hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year after the law would be enacted. It will be devastating for low-income families, Sullivan said in the debate.
In 2015, California was the first state in the nation to enact a cage-free egg law. Initially in the first year, according to the USDA, the average price of a dozen large eggs in California in a one month period increased 71 percent. Egg prices are historically volatile, according to the USDA, and prices also went up nationally last year, as more than 35 million hens in the Midwest had to be killed after a an outbreak of Avian Flu. Regardless of fluctuating costs, egg producers said it will cost more to raise cage-free animals.
Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society, a major financial backer of Question 3 in Massachusetts, disagreed with the Cornell study about how high the cost of eggs would go, and said his mission is to better the welfare of farm animals.
“Imagine a chicken,” he said during the NEPR debate. “She’s stuck inside of a cage, inside a windowless warehouse. She can’t even spread her wings. Every day, day in and day out,” Shapiro went on, “she sleeps, eats, defecates, and lays eggs for human consumption all in the same space.”
Eggs Eaten In New England
The majority of whole or “shell” eggs in the U.S., and those sold in New England, are laid in cages, in facilities mostly outside this region.
But the state of Maine does have commercial large-scale egg production, and at one facility, its owners have no plans to go cage-free. That may be because Hillandale Farms doesn’t have to. It’s one of the largest egg providers in New England, has customers and egg production facilities around the country and is building at least one new cage-free facility in New England by 2017, in Bozrah, Connecticut.
Hillandale’s Melanie Hilt said while more consumers want cage-free eggs, not everyone does.
“We also have to keep in mind consumers who are looking for a lower price and don’t want to have a food tax pushed on them that gives them no choice,” Wilt said, adding that the bulk of eggs supplied to Massachusetts consumers are currently raised in “a caged environment.”
Hillandale may not renovate its older hen houses in Maine, Wilt said, but new complexes coming on-line in the U.S. will be constructed as cage-free.
Change Driven By Marketplace Demands
One unknown in the egg industry’s transition is if California becomes harbinger of things to come. The attorneys general in six major egg producing states have taken California to court. The majority of egg producers in Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky and Iowa can no longer sell eggs in California. That’s a couple of billion eggs a year.
If Massachusetts voters approve Question 3, would those states then come east? Would Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, also see legal action if a cage-free law is enacted there? Earlier this year, Rhode Island legislators introduced a bill that would “make changes to and clarify the definition of what constitutes unlawful confinement of a covered animal.” The U.S. Humane Society is paying for television commercials in support of the bill.
Rhode Island has one commercial egg-laying facility that would be directly impacted. Neighboring Massachusetts isn’t home to any large-scale egg farms. Only one family farm in Wendell, Mass., would need to change housing for its 3,000 birds. The push for cage-free is driven not by the states going cage-free, but by the marketplace. Food corporations like Burger King, McDonald’s and Starbucks, supermarket chains including Trader Joe’s, Stop and Shop and Safeway, other producers like Kraft, Unilever and Nestle have pledged they will serve and produce products made only with cage-free eggs in the years to come.
Still, economist William Masters at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy said other states that produce relatively small numbers of eggs could be next for groups like the Humane Society to promote farm animal welfare legislation.
“They would be looking for places that, like Massachusetts, have a strong animal welfare concern in their electorate and not a lot of caged animal production,” Masters said.
If an industry has to face regulations state by state — up to 50 different sets of rules, Masters said it heads to Washington to demand federal standards.
“It’s excessively costly to have different standards in different states, when you’re trying to have a national distribution program,” Masters said.
Congress was already involved, in the years before the USDA’s 2014 Farm Bill became law. The 2012 Egg Products Inspection Act could have set federal egg-laying hen housing standards that would have doubled the size of cages, and added other “enriching” aspects to hen facilities. It was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and was backed by the unusual alliance of United Egg Producers, the largest egg industry group in the U.S., and the U.S. Humane Society.
Food Politics And Citizen Initiatives
In the end, the act never made it to the floor for a vote. The opposition came from, among others, pork farmers who were worried stricter regulations for hens could lead to similar rules in their industry. The National Pork Producers Council was among the agricultural groups that lobbied Congress to reject the bill. The Pork Council is also among the top financial backers of a Massachusetts committee urging voters to reject Question 3. Forrest Lucas, the co-founder of an oil products company in Indiana, is the other top financial donor. The farm bill comes up again in 2019.
What’s happening in agriculture may be akin to what happened earlier this year with GMO labeling, said Tuft’s William Masters. Vermont enacted the first-in-the-nation law mandating foods made with GMOs be labeled. Connecticut and Maine had passed similar laws. Then in July 2016, with industry at its door, Congress stepped up and made its own regulations, weaker than Vermont’s, and the state law was nullified two weeks after it went into effect.
Question 3 on the Massachusetts ballot has a good chance of passing. According to a recent WBUR poll, two-thirds of likely voters support the animal cage bans.