A last-minute legislative deal to rewrite key sections of a voter-approved animal welfare law landed on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk on Monday, less than two weeks before the scheduled start of new regulations that could impact the availability of eggs and pork in Massachusetts.
After House and Senate negotiators announced a deal on Sunday night, the branches on Monday quickly agreed to a bill (S 2603) updating the standards for housing egg-laying hens and delaying by seven and a half months the start of a ban on the sale of pork products from cruelly confined animals.
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The bill overhauls a law voters passed via ballot question in 2016 just weeks before enforcement is set to begin, drawing fierce criticism from the Humane Farming Association, whose executive director accused other animal rights groups who support the measure of being "co-opted" by business interests.
Lawmakers said they believe the bill will help stave off shortages in available eggs and pork products that could stem from the new law, even as senators drew a line in the sand on enforcing cruelty standards to protect pigs.
"The outcome without this bill for Massachusetts has been crystal clear the whole time: no eggs, or ridiculously high-cost eggs," said Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who co-chairs the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee and was one of three senators who crafted the compromise with the House. "Today, we are solving a real problem about chickens and eggs, and we did so through an open, accessible and transparent process without thwarting the will of the voters."
Rep. Carolyn Dykema, the lead House negotiator on the six-member conference committee that produced the accord after closed negotiations, said failure to implement changes would have created "potentially dramatic impacts to the availability of essential foods."
"Egg producers have told us that egg prices could skyrocket," Dykema said in a statement. "Local companies were being told that only 10% of their pork needs would be met, and available products would likely carry premium price tags. And further food supply disruptions would disproportionately burden those least able to withstand those burdens."
The legislation also shifts much of the regulatory responsibility from the attorney general's office to the state Department of Agricultural Resources. Healey's office would retain its existing enforcement authority.
The state agriculture department has been led since 2015 by Commissioner John Lebeaux. A certified horticulturist, Lebeaux's official biography describes him as "grandson of a farmer and son of a nursery owner" who previously served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association.
In 2016, voters approved a ballot question implementing new standards on the treatment of farm animals and products they produce.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2022, prohibits all farm owners in Massachusetts from confining any animal cruelly. It also bans the sale of shell eggs and pork and veal meat from animals held in violation of those standards, including products manufactured in other states.
As originally approved by voters, the law defined cruel confinement as any enclosure that prevents "lying down, standing up, fully extending the animal's limbs, or turning around freely." For egg-laying hens, that meant each bird must be able to spread both wings without touching the side of an enclosure and have access to at least 1.5 square feet of "usable floor space" per hen.
Industry representatives and some animal rights groups say that in the five years since the ballot question sailed to victory with more than 77 percent of the vote, practices on the ground have shifted substantially. Many egg manufacturers now use aviary systems, which allow hens to access more vertical space, with a standard of one square foot of floor space per animal.
Under the compromise legislation, farmers could house hens with a single square foot of floor space per bird if they are placed in "multi-tiered aviaries, partially-slatted cage-free housing systems or any other cage-free housing system that provides hens with unfettered access to vertical space." Single-level enclosures would still need to offer 1.5 square feet per hen.Click here to see more...