Massachusetts animal welfare vote limits choices

Consumers and food industry hurt the most in vote to restrict space requirements for egg-laying hens.

Third-generation, family-run Diemand Farm raises chickens for eggs and meat, turkeys for Thanksgiving meals and a small herd of beef cattle in Massachusetts. Diemand Farm is the only egg farm in the state of Massachusetts affected by an animal welfare ballot question, but Pete Dieman said his message about the sound welfare practices he implements on his farm were unable to sway voters on Election Day.

In Massachusetts, voters decided in favor of Question 3 by a margin of 78% to 22%, making Massachusetts the first state to ban confinement of farm animals and to restrict the sale of animal products in the state that come from these confinement practices. The end result likely will be decreased choices for consumers and businesses, agricultural groups said following the vote.

Ballot Question 3 will prohibit Massachusetts farms from confining breeding pigs, veal calves or egg-laying hens in cages that prevent the animals from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs or turning around. The ballot question also prohibits Massachusetts businesses from selling eggs or raw cuts of veal or pork produced from confined animals.

Chad Gregory, president and chief executive officer of the United Egg Producers (UEP), said the outcome of this ballot question is “disappointing, as this measure will limit choice for consumers and businesses in Massachusetts and disregards the great work of farmers in caring for their animals each day.”

Gregory pointed out that the allocation of 1.5 sq. ft. per hen written in the measure is inconsistent with most space allocations and far exceeds the guidelines for cage-free production set by UEP Certified, the American Humane Assn. and Certified Humane.

Diemand Farms currently houses 3,000 birds in cages its owners consider humane, but its barn would have to be refurbished to reduce that number to 500, and it will have to stop selling eggs wholesale once the ballot initiative goes into effect, according to a statement from the farm. Dieman said his cages give the birds 12-18 in. of space, which is plenty of space to turn around.

"Our cages fit the size that (the ballot initiative is) calling for, except where it says that the chickens must be able to 'fully spread both wings without touching the side of the enclosure.' Chickens do not spread their wings side to side like eagles; they spread them to the back, one at a time. Our chickens are one per cage and can stand and move around,” Diemand said in defending his farm’s practices.

In a YouTube video, Diemand explained how cages eliminate problems with cannibalism and hens crowding in corners. They also provide the birds with a clean space and access to fresh water and feed.

The Citizens for Food Tax Injustice – which pushed for "No on 3" – estimates that passage of the initiative will drive up the costs of eggs by $95 million and the cost of pork by $154 million in the first year alone.

California passed a similar measure - Proposition 2 – in 2008, and consumers there have seen higher egg prices. After passage, the cost of eggs in California jumped nearly 20%. The Citizens for Food Tax Injustice said this increase in egg prices was almost 14 times higher than the inflation rate for other foods in California and 35 times higher than America’s overall inflation rate.

Today, the price of eggs in California is 90% higher than the cost of eggs around the nation. Prior to the implementation of Proposition 2 requirements, California’s egg prices were only 16% higher than the national average.

Gregory said consumers already have a number of alternatives when it comes to choosing what type of eggs they wish to buy.

The Citizens for Food Tax Injustice noted that 90% of shoppers purchase regular or conventional eggs because they are more affordable. “The animal rights group behind Question 3 wants to eliminate the choices consumers are making 90% of the time,” the organization said of the Massachusetts vote. “You are not making the choices these groups want you to make, so they’re going to impose their will on you with this new law.”

Gregory added, “The lack of a common standard will result in significant challenges for egg producers in addressing a patchwork of state laws and will contribute to higher costs for households and businesses that rely on eggs in their diets and products.”

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