By: Oriana Durand
To frame the Question 3 debate in the way the opponents and proponents have argued over the past few months, Massachusetts voters are being asked to choose between an ethical treatment of farm animals and the impact on low-income families.
Supporters of the ballot question argue that a yes vote would make it illegal to keep chickens, pigs and calves in cages, preventing them from standing up or moving their limbs.
“These animals are crammed in cages so small that they can barely move an inch, and this practice is abusive,” said Stephanie Harris, the Yes on 3 campaign director.
Opponents led by Diane Sullivan, an anti-poverty activist, say the extra costs of the law would make cheap eggs unavailable to poor families that rely on cheap protein options to feed their children.
“It is a social injustice. It’s regressive food tax,” Sullivan said. “We are making the decision between do I pay my rent, do I feed my children or keep the lights on.”
Question 3 forbids the sale of eggs, pork and veal from animals raised in tight confinement, although the law would affect just one farm in Massachusetts. However, it would also apply to sales imported from sources outside of the state.
“Every other farm in Massachusetts is doing the right thing by their hens, so it’s a really reasonable and modest measure. It’s also about animal welfare and preventing animal cruelty,” said Harris.
Joann Lindenmayer, an expert in public health and veterinary medicine, believes this increase in price is a modest proposal that would allow more humane treatment of farm animals.
“If you think of it in terms of risk benefit, the benefit to millions of animals is enormous. It’s an incredibly small price to play for a huge animal welfare benefit,” said Lindenmayer.
Opponents have challenged the referendum as unenforceable and unfair to those struggling to make ends meet.
Currently, the national average price for one dozen large eggs is $1.47, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With this new legislation, egg industry studies show that prices can rise between one to five cents per egg, which would amount to an additional $10 per year per household.
During a recent debate by the Boston public radio station WBUR, Bill Bell, the general manager of the Brown Egg Council, said consumers who rely on eggs would have no alternative to the higher prices brought by the ballot question.
Opponents point to California, where a similar law was passed in 2008. Following its implementation, prices of eggs rose above the national cost for eggs.
“Eggs are inelastic in their demand and supply because they are so essential for protein,” he said. “Producer cost [for cage-free eggs], which is a 36 percent increase, will be reflected in the marketplace, and I can assure you it’ll be more than a penny or two an egg.”
However, Question 3 supporters claim the changes will improve not only animal conditions, but also food safety.
“Massachusetts families are currently threatened by these substandard and unsafe products in our marketplace,” said Harris. “Cage facilities have a significantly higher rate of salmonella than their cage-free counterparts do, and salmonella is the leading cause of food poisoning deaths in America today.”
Jessica Van Steensburg, whose farm We Can Farm is located in Heath Massachusetts, said you can see the difference between eggs from confined chickens and those from hens raised in more spacious conditions.
“I raised my animals on a small farm. The eggs are bright orange rather than pale yellow, and that’s a direct reflection of how they’re raised,” said Van Steensburg.
Large corporations such as Walmart, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and many others have pledged to use or sell eggs that come exclusively from cage-free environments.
“If they want to sell to those large companies, farmers are going to have to change the way they’re raising these animals,” said Lindenmayer.
Diemand Farm, located in Wendell, is the sole farm in Massachusetts that would be impacted by the new law, according to a statement from Tammy at the Diemand Farm. It currently raises nearly 3,000 laying birds. If the legislation passes, it would have to reduce that number to 500.
“There are not enough free-range chickens in Massachusetts to supply the millions of eggs purchased by consumers. This would lead to a price increase and probably a shortage of eggs,” said Tammy.
Although the vote takes place this November, implementation would not begin until 2022, which allows businesses, retailers and farmers to adapt and make the transition to cage-free eggs.
“Unlike California, where farmers had to make that adjustment very fast, Massachusetts will be given until 2022 to make that switch over. This can be something that’s gradual, it doesn’t need to have the immediate impact on the price of eggs,” said Lindenmayer.