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Legislature must get cracking on egg reform

A well-intended law on the treatment of farm chickens needs updating.

Chickens mill about at Brown's Farm, which produces sustainable eggs for NestFresh, in Gonzales, Texas in May.Mary Kang/Bloomberg

Bay Staters could soon learn, the hard way, that a well-meaning referendum designed to ensure the humane treatment of egg-producing chickens is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

The law, approved by voters by a wide margin back in 2016, effectively bars eggs laid by caged hens from being sold in Massachusetts. Set to go into effect on the first of the year, the law, which also covers humane treatment of livestock, enjoyed broad support from animals rights organizations, lawmakers, and, indeed, this editorial board.

The law will probably have minimal impact on Massachusetts farmers. Years ago they almost universally ended the practice of using small cages for chickens, calves, pigs, and other animals.


When the ballot question passed, the hope was that out-of-state farmers, eager to keep selling eggs in Massachusetts, would adopt the requirements spelled out in the law. But that hasn’t happened.

Now, according to Big Egg, grocers and shoppers in the state may soon be feeling the heat because of a looming shortage in supply from out-of-state egg producers that could leave shelves empty and prices surging. An “Egg-mageddon,” so to speak.

That’s because only a small percentage of the nation’s egg suppliers can meet that strict requirement, and in-state hens don’t lay enough eggs to meet the state’s needs. One reason Massachusetts has become an outlier is that industry standards have changed in ensuing years, with most egg producers utilizing hen housing that provides the fowl with more space through innovations like multi-tiered aviaries.

That sent lawmakers on Beacon Hill scrambling for a solution. The House and Senate easily passed a legislative workaround allowing eggs from hens housed in such industry-accepted spaces to be sold in the state, and also extend the timeline for compliance to give the suppliers who send eggs to the Commonwealth time to adapt. The common-sense amendment won the backing of the Humane Society of the United States and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


But the houses didn’t reconcile their bills during the last legislative session. Now that the House and Senate are done with their formal sessions for the year, it will take unanimous consent to send the legislation to the governor’s office.

There is no clear opposition from within the state, but there is one group that strongly opposes the fix: the California-based Humane Farming Association. The group told the Globe in June that if the Legislature messes with the original referendum with an amendment, it would sue and bring a new referendum to overturn the change.

The state Legislature shouldn’t allow anyone — certainly not an out-of-state interest group — to stop it from protecting Bay State businesses or consumers. No matter whose feathers it ruffles, lawmakers should move swiftly to act by unanimous consent to enact this common-sense fix before the referendum goes into effect. The timer is ticking.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.