In 2016, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly decided egg-laying hens should be provided with at least 1 1/2 feet of floor space each.
But what do the chickens actually want?
That question is dividing animal rights activists. And many of those activists are now siding with the egg-producing industry they previously opposed, as new legislation seeks to “upgrade” regulations required by the 2016 ballot measure.
Attorney General Maura Healey released new draft regulations for the egg industry earlier this month that were required by the 2016 ballot referendum. Those regulations are set to go into effect in October, and would ban the sale of eggs in the state if hens don’t have 1 1/2 feet of required floor space.
But a new bill, which cleared the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture committee last week, is described as an “upgrade” to those regulations. It would allow the floor space to be reduced to 1 foot per hen in certain circumstances. Several animal rights groups are fine with the change. But not California-based Humane Farming Association (HFA), which has been taking out full page ads in Boston newspapers recently, opposing the legislation.
“These rotten egg bills allow the egg industry to cram 50 percent more hens into any given facility than allowed by current law,” said Bradley Miller of the HFA. “That is not an enhancement. That is an evisceration of what voters have already demanded. And it’s outrageous. “
Several animal rights groups in Massachusetts told GBH News the HFA is misrepresenting what the legislation would actually do.
Stephanie Harris, who is now with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, was the campaign director for the coalition that supported the successful 2016 ballot measure.
“The way the question was phrased on the ballot had to do with giving animals enough space to stand up, turn around and lie down,” Harris said. “And this legislation furthers that goal.”
The bill would allow 1 square foot of floor space only for cage-free hens that are kept in a newer, so-called “aviary” style of facility. These kind of farms have become an industry standard outside Massachusetts, and allow the chickens access to significantly more vertical space, via ramps and elevated platforms.
“Hens show a particular preference for high perches and high roosts,” Harris said. “And so there’s a vertical space that’s really important to the welfare of hens.”
“My sense is people really want better conditions for these animals,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the MSPCA. “And it’s not just about the amount of space they have, but the quality of the space. And these changes would give the birds what they need for living in a more natural environment and being able to exhibit the types of behaviors that that they should be able to.”
The Animal Rescue League of Boston also backs the bills.
Under the proposed legislation, those farms that don’t use an aviary system and allow the birds access only to horizontal space would still be required to provide 1 1/2 feet of floor space for each bird.
That’s how it’s done at The Country Hen egg farm in Hubbardston, Mass.
“The way we produce, it wouldn’t change anything, because we’d still produce at 1 1/2 square feet,” said Bob Beauregard, the farm’s general manager.
Most out-of-state, cage-free egg producing facilities have transitioned to aviaries, Beauregard said. So if the new regulations go into effect, there are very few farms like his that would be allowed to supply eggs to Massachusetts consumers.
“We couldn’t come close to supplying the needs of Massachusetts.”
“It’ll be egg Armageddon if they don’t fix the law,” said Steve Vendemia, president of Hillendale Farms Connecticut, which has about 2 million chickens in the aviary style facility, many of which are producing eggs sold in Massachusetts supermarkets.
“Massachusetts made a mistake,” Vendemia said of the 2016 referendum. “It’s not possible, there’s not enough capacity, there’s not enough egg-laying chickens to do 1 1/2 [feet per hen]. And [Massachusetts is] such an outlier in the states — California, Michigan, all the other cage-free states, Oregon, Washington, they’re all 1 [foot per hen]. The industry standard, is 1 [foot].”
An egg shortage could drive up costs for consumers in Massachusetts, which would especially hurt those with the lowest incomes, Vendemia said.
For some, changing the requirements detailed in the referendum has raised questions about honoring voter intent.
“I know that the egg producers from out of state are quite anxious about this, unhappy about it,” said Mark Amato, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, which opposed the 2016 referendum. He said even though his side lost that election, the will of the voters should be respected. “The fact is the voters of Massachusetts spoke, and we don’t think it’s appropriate for the legislature to be making changes like this.”
State Sen. Jason Lewis (D-5th Middlesex District), who introduced the “upgrade” bill, says things have changed since 2016.
“Massachusetts was in the forefront of passing these farm animal protections, but things have evolved since then,” Lewis said. “And it makes sense for our state to be consistent with other states.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the effective date of the regulations.
Craig reports on a wide range of topics, including environmental and public health issues. He’s covered the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2018 gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. Craig’s stories have brought listeners flying over the Arctic Ocean and up close with whales and sharks. Previously, Craig reported for 7 years at WSHU in Connecticut. He’s the recipient of two national Edward R. Murrow Awards and a national Sigma Delta Chi award, as well as many regional honors, including a 2020 Murrow for “excellence in sound.” He’s a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and Tufts University.