Metro

Mass. ballot push would mandate cage-free eggs

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, spoke in front of the State House to promote the 2016 ballot question.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, spoke in front of the State House to promote the 2016 ballot question.

Top state and national animal welfare groups on Wednesday launched a 2016 ballot initiative that would prohibit Massachusetts businesses from selling some meat and eggs from animals kept in small crates and cages.

The measure would mandate that, starting in 2022, Massachusetts farms and businesses produce and sell only eggs from cage-free hens; pork from pigs not raised in or born of a sow raised in a small crate; and veal from calves not raised in a very tight enclosure.

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Advocates, including the Humane Society of the United States, framed the effort — which goes beyond their successful referenda on the issue in other states — as establishing modest standards to protect farm animals from cruelty. But the food industry warned it would raise prices and hurt family farmers, and the National Pork Producers Council called it an effort to advance a “national vegan agenda.”

The back-and-forth offers of a preview of what could be a nasty, expensive, and divisive ballot battle leading up to Election Day 2016, with two sharply divergent storylines and broad alliances both for and against the measure.

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The proposed Massachusetts ballot question is backed by a coalition that includes the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and other groups.

In a sign of the coalition’s potential political juice, a State House press conference Wednesday was organized by Rasky Baerlein, a powerhouse public affairs outfit based in Boston, with experience in state ballot efforts.

While previous ballot measures backed by the Humane Society in other states limited the ways farmers can produce meat and eggs, the Massachusetts measure also targets what products businesses here can sell.

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A 2002 measure in Florida banned using gestation crates for sows; a 2006 Arizona effort banned gestation crates for sows and veal crates for calves; and an expensive 2008 fight in California outlawed those two techniques as well as small “battery cages” for laying hens.

Should the Massachusetts initiative become law, it would “absolutely 100 percent guaranteed” mean higher egg prices for local consumers, said Chad Gregory, president and chief executive of United Egg Producers, which represents companies that account for 95 percent of all the eggs produced in the United States.

“This is taking the affordable, high-quality protein egg away from the family of four that doesn’t make a lot of money,” Gregory said in a telephone interview.

But Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the groups that make up the Citizens for Farm Animal Protection coalition, said that was a standard argument “from agribusiness” and said a successful ballot push would “definitely not” result in egg prices spiking for Massachusetts consumers.

By 2022, he predicted, most of the retail food sector will have already shifted to cage-free eggs, and the law would just press the outliers to join what will then be the mainstream.

Pacelle said he could “absolutely” foresee the coalition spending millions of dollars to back the effort.

“We’ll do what it takes to win,” he said.

He also raised the specter of a barrage of television advertisements aimed at voters next year, should the question make the ballot.

“Nothing tells the story like actually seeing these cages and crates and these poor animals who are living there indefinitely,” he said.

Asked if the egg producers or allied groups might spend money to fight the ballot question, Gregory said that is “definitely an option” and he is soon going to travel to Massachusetts to strategize on how to move forward.

At the State House event, advocates argued the initiative is simply the right thing to do.

“This measure asserts that society will no longer accept the abject suffering of animals as a pathway to profit,” said Matt Bershadker, president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Carter Luke, president and chief executive of the MSPCA, said the proposed law would simply ensure laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves have enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around, and extend their limbs. He called it a “landmark campaign.”

Agricultural interests indicated they see it as a landmark campaign too, but not in a positive way.

Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said the initiative would result in financial damage to local hog farmers and, potentially, less availability of a “safe and sustainable” source of food.

The effort, he said in a statement, was about the national Humane Society using Massachusetts, a state with little pork production, “to gain momentum for advancing its national vegan agenda regardless of the negative impact it would have had on the health and safety of the animals and the farmers who care for them.”

Kay Johnson Smith, president and chief executive of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group, said in a statement that animal care is a priority and all sectors of the industry have guidelines to improve the lives of animals.

She argued the proposed ballot question is not about animal care, but about “restricting, and ultimately eliminating, the ability of family farmers to raise animals for food” (an accusation the coalition vehemently denies).

Some local groups also expressed opposition.

Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his group would oppose the measure because it could put state retailers at a disadvantage and would raise prices for consumers.

Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation balked at the ballot initiative.

“What’s significant about this ballot question is it not only would ban practices in the state of Massachusetts which largely don’t even exist [here] . . .” he said. “What’s significant about it is it bans products produced outside the state using those practices.”

Bonanno said his group’s overriding concern about the measure is that it would reduce consumer choice and raise costs.

“While there are a small percentage of people who are willing to pay” a lot more for cage-free eggs, he said, “most people in Massachusetts simply can’t afford them.”

If Attorney General Maura Healey says the proposed question passes constitutional muster, advocates can begin the process of gathering the tens of thousands of signatures needed to make the ballot. If successful, voters will be able to have their say next year.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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