With no organized opposition and very favorable polling, Ballot Question 3 on the confinement of some farm animals looks to be on its way to passage on Nov. 8.
The question requires that egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal, and hogs raised for breeding have enough room where they are raised to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs, with exceptions for transportation, agricultural fairs, veterinary care, and several other cases. It also prohibits the sale of uncooked veal, pork or eggs if the vendor knows they came from farms — even out-of-state farms — that don’t follow these guidelines. If passed, the law would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, and enforcement would be the responsibility of the attorney general, relying on local inspectors or whistleblowers to identify possible violations. Fines would be $1,000 per violation.
The arguments in favor of the law are made by a broad coalition, including the animal rights groups one might expect, as well as many small farmers, veterinarians and farm workers. In addition, huge companies such as McDonald’s and Walmart, and more familiar companies such as Stop & Shop, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and other grocers, are moving in the direction of selling cage free eggs and supporting the standards presented in this ballot question. They are responding to their customers' desires, some of them say.
Proponents note that cage free hens are less likely to spread diseases such as salmonella and e. Coli, and the largest organic egg producer in Massachusetts points out that they have been able to avoid the use of antibiotics by raising their hens without cages.
The main opposition, which has come mostly from national advocates of commercial egg and pork producers, as well as the Massachusetts Farm Bureau and Retailers Association of Massachusetts, is the impact the law would have on the price of food, eggs in particular. Citing a similar law in California, the argument is made that eggs have risen by 75 cents per dozen, although estimates of the impact on Massachusetts eggs appears to be closer to 1 penny per egg.
Another objection is that requiring store owners to be held accountable for an out-of-state producer’s practices exposes them to great financial risk. The law’s accommodation for that risk is that a producer’s written attestation of conformity with the law is acceptable protection.
Small and family farms are not the intended target, and there is perhaps only one large egg-laying operation in the commonwealth that would find its current process in conflict with the law.
Local inspectors would have the explicit standards of an animal’s mobility to assess conditions, which would be expected to have a positive impact on food and animal safety.
Polling shows nearly 2-to-1 support for passage of Question 3. Proponents have spent a decade trying for passage through legislative sessions, but have met with limited enthusiasm in the Legislature. A decision will now be with voters.