Sayonara, scramble. Farewell, frittata.
The most valuable player in the most important meal of the day will be at risk come Jan. 1, if state lawmakers don’t soon take action to shore up Massachusetts’s egg supply. The egg industry warns that up to 90 percent of the eggs currently being supplied to the state will disappear from shelves in 2022 unless the Legislature changes upcoming new standards for those that may be sold in Massachusetts supermarkets.
Without legislative action, eggs born of hens that have less than 1.5 square feet of space could not be sold in the state, a standard industry experts say is strict enough to effectively destroy the market.
Customers “are likely to notice that there are no eggs in the dairy cases,” was the wry prediction of Bill Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council. “The retailers are in a huge quandary . . . You’re looking at just a huge shortage.”
Egg suppliers and lobbyists representing grocery stores are hopeful lawmakers can reach an agreement by the end of the year to keep the supply stable. But the Legislature, often sluggish and unbothered by deadlines, stands at an impasse over a bill that addresses several animal welfare concerns and that the industry says would ameliorate the looming threat. Six state lawmakers were appointed in October to hash out differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill, but as the end of the year approaches, they have yet to announce an agreement.
The flap dates back to a 2016 ballot measure. Massachusetts voters that year overwhelmingly approved a new law that required all pork, veal, and eggs farmed and sold in Massachusetts to come from livestock that was not confined to ultratight quarters. The change was set to go into effect in 2022, giving suppliers ample time to adjust to the new standards — and state lawmakers ample time to make any tweaks they considered necessary.
The problem, according to the egg industry, is that over the past five years, the industry standard has evolved. Massachusetts voters backed a required space of 1.5 square feet per bird. Now, both the egg industry and many animal welfare groups support a Massachusetts law requiring just 1 square foot per bird in a “multi-tier aviary,” which would allow hens room to move vertically but require less floor space.
In addition to the egg industry and animal welfare groups including the Humane Society of The United States, the Massachusetts House and Senate both support the 1 square foot standard. The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a bill to that effect in June, and the House did so overwhelmingly in October.
The holdup on the animal welfare bill is over a whole other beast. The House and Senate are at odds on the timeframe for another change required by the 2016 ballot measure, this one centered on standards for pigs. The House wants to delay by one year the requirement that pork sold in Massachusetts be sourced from pigs that were not raised in or born of a sow raised in a small crate.
The National Pork Producers Council pleaded with lawmakers for that delay, warning that COVID-19 has “exacerbated” the “time and cost” of meeting the new, higher standard.
But not all producers agreed that it’s necessary to put it off. In fact, some pressed the Legislature to keep Jan. 1, 2022, as the phase-in date for the higher standards for treating pigs.
Chris Oliviero, general manager of Niman Ranch, a pork brand owned by Perdue, told state lawmakers in an October letter that “to potentially change the date because some companies have chosen not to make reforms over the past five years — and are lobbying for an extension because of their lack of action — is unfair to all the family farms that have been acting in good faith to provide the state of Massachusetts with humanely raised, [ballot-initiative]-compliant pork.”
State Senator Jason Lewis and State Representative Carolyn Dykema, the Democrats leading negotiation efforts on the bill, both said discussions are ongoing, and acknowledged that the issue is time sensitive.
“The House is committed to ensuring consumers continue to have access to affordable egg and pork products,” Dykema said in a statement. “The conference committee is in active negotiations and we remain hopeful that there will be no supply disruptions as a result of this voter-approved animal welfare law.”
But the clock is ticking toward what could be a chaotic January. And some disruptions are already being felt, the industry warned.
“It’s difficult to plan when there isn’t a certainty as to what you’re going to have to do as of Jan. 1,” said Brian Houghton, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores.
And every day counts, Bell said.
“The longer it takes to get agreement, the more disruption there will be,” Bell said.
The Legislature’s foot-dragging has also introduced another layer of uncertainty: the possibility that even if a consensus proposal emerges, it might not make it into law by January. Because lawmakers in November concluded their formal sessions for the year, any compromise legislation would have to pass through what’s called an informal session. During those sparsely attended meetings, any individual lawmaker can sink a proposal.
This would not be the first time the Massachusetts Legislature changes or delays a law overwhelmingly passed by voters. The state constitution doesn’t prevent lawmakers from tweaking the laws passed via ballot initiative, no matter how popular they were among voters. Lawmakers delayed and then reworked the 2016 measure legalizing recreational marijuana sales. And they have repeatedly delayed a tax deduction on charitable donations, relief voters approved in 2000.