By: Michael Sol Warren
Statehouse Correspondant / South Coast Today
The average Bay State resident eats the equivalent of 250 eggs each year, bringing total annual consumption in the state to a whopping 1.7 billion eggs.
But, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the state’s 153,925 chickens lay around 39 million eggs annually. That means if voters pass the Question 3 ban on small cages for chickens, state regulators will have to find some way to check the provenance of the more than a billion eggs imported from other states each year.
Question 3 would ban the sale of eggs, pork or veal from any animal raised in a cage that keeps it from lying down or turning around. But since a very small fraction of those 39 million eggs come from tightly caged chickens, the major effect of such a law would be felt well beyond Massachusetts’ borders.
A quick survey of your grocery shelves illustrates the problem. A Boston Star Market offered eggs from The Country Hen in Massachusetts, The Farmer’s Cow in Connecticut, Pete and Gerry’s Organics in New Hampshire and The Happy Egg Company in Missouri and Arkansas. These are alongside eggs from national companies like Lucerne, Land O’ Lakes and Egglands Best.
The passage of Question 3 would only lead to changes at one farm in the state: Diemand Farm, a poultry farm in Wendell, which, according to its website, has been transitioning out of the commercial egg business since 2010. That’s why some advocates say the law is unnecessary for Massachusetts farmers.
“The whole ballot question suggests there’s a problem here when we’ve frankly given up these practices decades ago,” said Brad Mitchell, director of policy at the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, whose members voted to oppose the question.
Massachusetts would not be the first state to limit the sale of animal products based on farming methods. In 2015, California’s Proposition 2 went into effect, banning eggs from confined chickens.
California farmers took their state to court over the law, arguing that it was too costly for them to retrofit their farms to comply with Proposition 2 regulations. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2015.
Arizona and Florida also have similar laws, but the statutes in both states are aimed specifically at the treatment of pigs and calves.
Question 3 differs from California regarding the burden of legal responsibility. In California, farmers are punished for violating the law. The Massachusetts proposal would punish farmers as well, however it would also leave vendors exposed to fines for selling products that do not comply.
Grocery stores and other food vendors would need a written promise from suppliers that products comply with the new laws. If they don’t, violators face fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.
The Massachusetts Food Association, the trade association for grocery stores opposed to Question 3 says that grocery stores are unsure of how the law would be enforced.
“The question calls for the attorney general to promulgate regulations, so that has yet to be determined,” said Brian Houghton, the association’s vice president.
If Question 3 passes, the new law would go into effect in 2022. The state attorney general’s office, which would be responsible for enforcing the new rules, would have to have the enforcement plan prepared by 2020.
The attorney general’s regulations would likely have to establish a concrete specifications for the space each animal is entitled. California requires a minimum of 116 square inches of floor space in a chicken cage.
But the real issue will be how the attorney general’s office would determine if grocery stores are selling products from out-of-state farms that still meet Massachusetts standards.
Out-of-state chicken inspectors? Surveillance cameras. The problems of jurisdiction over other states’ chicken coops would make any plan tricky to execute.
Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healy, said the drafting of regulations wouldn’t begin until the measure passes.
The attorney general would have some time to figure it out. If Question 3 does pass, the regulations would be created by Jan. 1, 2020.