The cracks started appearing a few years after Massachusetts voters in 2016 approved a ballot initiative that effectively mandated that all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens.
The law, backed by nearly 8 of 10 voters, was pushed by top animal welfare groups in order to create what they argued were more humane standards for animals.
Now, warning of an “Egg-mageddon” — a severe egg shortage that would send prices spiking — lawmakers are moving to change the measure before it goes into effect in 2022. The proposal would reduce the floor space requirements for hens housed in facilities where they are able to move vertically, a change supporters argue would bring Massachusetts in line with a standard developed over the last five years. The effort has the support of both the egg industry, which largely opposed the 2016 reforms, and animal welfare groups that spent millions to pass them, including the Humane Society of the United States.
But the push to adjust the law has spawned opposition from a local agriculture group and a national animal rights organization. In a twist, the head of the California-based Humane Farming Association told the Globe that if the Legislature tinkers with the law, his organization will move to use the state’s referendum process to overturn the Legislature’s amendments to the 2016 measure.
Bradley Miller, who founded the HFA in 1985, said a bill passed by the state Senate Thursday that would reduce the floor space requirements for hens from 1.5 square feet per bird to 1 square foot per bird in certain facilities was a “cruel betrayal of animals and Massachusetts voters.”
“The Legislature has tried to ignore what was a clear demand of voters,” Miller said. “We’re determined to give voters the final say here. The voters have spoken loud and clear about the 1.5 foot standard, and that must be upheld.”
The reduced floor space requirements in the Senate bill would apply to hens housed in vertical aviaries, which are multitiered facilities, as opposed to single-level hen houses.
“This is actually considered more humane for chickens because, just like other birds, they like to perch and roost,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who introduced the bill in the Senate. “We’re basically updating the Massachusetts standard for egg-laying hens so that [it] will now accommodate vertical aviaries as well.”
The bill would also mandate that cage-free hen houses include “enrichments that allow [hens] to exhibit natural behaviors,” including scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas.
Josh Balk, the vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill is a “tremendous advancement for animals.”
“Chickens are birds — they want to get off the ground,” he said of the provision reducing the floor space requirements for vertical facilities. “So when they have vertical space, they need less space on the floor because they’re off the ground.”
Balk said the type of vertical aviary system targeted by the proposed changes was not widely used when the referendum was passed in 2016. Because such systems have since become a norm in production, he said, the law should be updated.
But opponents of the bill, including a top state agricultural group, are crying foul. They say advocates of the change are succumbing to pressure from out-of-state egg producers and overturning the will of voters.
Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, disputed the notion that 1 square foot is actually a standard for hens in vertical aviaries. Instead, he said, “this is what a few special interests have temporarily agreed on at this spot in time.”
The passage of the bill would mark the first time a state will ever have moved backward in humane protections for animals, Mitchell said.
The state Farm Bureau opposed Question 3 in 2016. But today, he said, all egg producers in the state are in compliance with the regulations laid out in the ballot measure.
“The entirety of this is so out-of-state egg producers can get into the Massachusetts market without meeting the standards that the voters put in in 2016,” Mitchell said.
Senator Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, concurred.
“I think it was the wrong move of the Senate to overturn the will of the people by overturning a vote,” said the senator.
Lewis, the senator who introduced the legislation, said he thinks it is “likely” the House of Representatives will take up the bill, which he believes is “fully consistent with the intent of voters.” The lower chamber passed similar changes as part of its annual budget in 2019.
Governor Charlie Baker has not taken a position on the measure.
But if the change to the ballot measure becomes law, it won’t be the first time legislators have tinkered with voter-passed laws arguing that leaving the status quo would be bad for everyone. For example, lawmakers first delayed and then reworked the 2016 measure legalizing recreational marijuana sales.