Attorneys general sue Massachusetts over animal welfare law

Twelve states file Supreme Court challenge over Massachusetts’ attempt to restrict meat sold in the state to abide by certain production standards.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

December 12, 2017

3 Min Read
Cartons of eggs in grocery store egg case
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Attorneys generals from 12 states have challenged a Massachusetts ballot measure approved in November of 2016 that bans confinement of farm animals and restricts the sale of animal products in the state that were produced under these confinement practices. The states filled a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court that challenges Massachusetts' efforts to regulate farming in other states, claiming that it violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill and the attorneys general from Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin challenged Massachusetts’ “attempt to impose regulatory standards on farmers from every other state by dictating conditions of housing for poultry, hogs and calves when their products will be offered for sale in Massachusetts.”

Indiana and the plaintiff states want the Supreme Court to decide that Massachusetts’ animal law “is unconstitutional, in violation of the Commerce Clause to the United States Constitution, on the basis that it imposes an impermissible extraterritorial regulation of commercial activity occurring wholly in another state.” The complaint also claims that this “extraterritorial regulation will increase the costs of producing and marketing farm commodities nationwide, including for farmers and consumers in plaintiff states.”

Related:State attorneys general take egg lawsuit to Supreme Court

The states claim that they have direct standing to challenge the animal law because their agencies own and operate farms and sell regulated commodities on the national market as part of a supply chain that reaches Massachusetts.

The animal law passed by Massachusetts voters defined the term “confined in a cruel manner” to mean: “Confined so as to prevent a covered animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending the animal’s limbs or turning around freely.” Fully extending was also defined as meaning “fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure.”

The Massachusetts law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. However, the 12 attorneys general complaint to the Supreme Court notes that farmers must begin to plan for compliance now, explained Gary Baise, a lawyer at OFW Law.

Farm operators — including the state of Indiana, through Purdue University — will need to start planning immediately for the financial burden imposed by compliance with the Massachusetts animal law and any forthcoming regulations promulgated to implement the law, the complaint said.

Baise explained that Purdue University owns and operates farms, and the confined animals in those farms would not currently comply with the new Massachusetts law. Purdue markets hogs to Tyson Foods and other packers who sell their products throughout the U.S. and in Massachusetts.

The plaintiff states will have to decrease their flock and herd sizes and undertake contentious zoning approval processes to comply with the Massachusetts law or else “forgo completely any sales in Massachusetts or to national distributors that may resell products in Massachusetts,” the complaint added.

Dr. Jason Lusk, dean of agriculture at Purdue, filed a declaration supporting the attorneys general brief. Lusk pointed out that when California passed its egg production law, California’s hen population “was reduced by an average of 4.4 million birds each month relative to what would have been observed in the absence of the (California animal welfare) laws.” Lusk also confirmed that state efforts to regulate agriculture causes price increases for consumers. In California, for example, the state's animal welfare law caused the average price of a dozen eggs to rise about 22%.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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