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Mass. House’s hen welfare bill aims to assure egg supply

A carton of chicken eggs.
Carrie Healy
A carton of chicken eggs.

With the threat of bacon and egg shortages looming, the Massachusetts House passed a bill Wednesday aimed at avoiding any disruption to food supplies next year by updating the 2016 ballot law that set standards for how hens, pigs and veal calves could be raised.

The ballot law was intended to improve the living conditions for food-producing farm animals by setting standards for how much space animals were required to have in confinement. Evolving industry practices and conflicting standards adopted by other states, however, have threatened to cut off the supply of eggs and pork products to Massachusetts as soon as January.

"Passage of this bill is time sensitive and is essential to protecting our fragile food supply chain when food insecurity is as high as ever," said Representative Carolyn Dykema, of Holliston, who explained the bill on the House floor Wednesday.

Dykema said the revisions to the ballot law also would ensure the humane treatment of millions more egg-laying hens by extending protections to those hens used to produce "other egg products," such as liquid or deshelled eggs.

The bill, a version of which passed the Senate in June, cleared the House 156-1 without anyone speaking in opposition. Representative Susannah Whipps, of Athol, cast the only no vote.

While the ballot law stipulates that egg-laying hens should be given at least 1.5 square feet of floor space, the bill would allow the birds to be kept in vertical aviaries with just 1 square foot of floor space and "unfettered access to vertical space."

The revision would define cage-free housing as any indoor or outdoor controlled environment where hens are allowed to "roam unrestricted and exhibit natural behaviors," including in multi-tiered aviaries, partially slatted systems, or single-level floor systems that comply with the larger 1.5 square foot dimensions.

Proponents say the change will put Massachusetts in line with other larger egg-producing states that have also put in place standards for hen confinement, and adapt to the new science unavailable in 2016 that suggests giving hens more vertical space to fly upward, perch and roost is preferred.

"What you're going to see if it doesn't change is you'll be in a situation, especially the border towns, where everyone will shop in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and they won't just buy their eggs there, they'll buy their whole cart," said David Radlo, the past president of the New England Brown Egg Council.

Radlo, who now writes and advocates for food sustainability, said egg producers are spending $7.8 billion to $9.5 billion to upgrade their cage systems nationwide to comply with various state laws, making it important that Massachusetts is not an outlier with its standards.

"There won't be any eggs in Massachusetts," he said.

Dykema said ensuring an adequate supply of eggs is also important to families who rely on eggs as an affordable source of protein.

The House and Senate must now negotiate any differences between the two versions before it can move to Gov. Charlie Baker for his consideration.

Both versions are similar in their approach to egg-laying hens, but the House version of the bill would also delay by a year to 2023 the ban on the sale of pork meat derived from cruelly confined animals. For breeding pigs, that means enclosures that prevent them from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs, or turning around freely.

Dykema said fewer than 4 percent of pork suppliers are currently in compliance, threatening the supply of products such as bacon to restaurants and grocers already struggling to claw back the business lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. The delay, she said, would "smooth" the transition for pork suppliers.

The House bill also turns enforcement of the law from Attorney General Maura Healey's office to the Department of Agriculture Resources, which could refer violations to the attorney general for punishment with fines of up to $1,000.

Animal rights groups and commercial egg farmers who clashed five years ago over the ballot initiative are now supporting changes to the law.

The Human Society of the United States, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Animal Legal Defense Fund issued a joint statement after the House vote thanking House legislators for advancing the bill and saying it would "improve the lives of millions of egg-laying hens."

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