Dave Radlo has spent a lot of his life thinking about eggs — specifically, Massachusetts eggs.
His grandfather sold eggs in Quincy Market during World War I. His dad was in the egg business. Radlo himself ran the family egg company for nearly 25 years, and was one of the pioneers of cage-free eggs.
So when he says we’re a couple of weeks away from an avoidable disaster, I listened.
“New England used to be about the Town Meeting — we’d hash things out until 11:30 at night,” he mused. “Now we’re in this place of intransigence where it’s seen as weak to be able to cut a deal and get along.”
The problem that’s unfolding was predictable, though it has been a while coming.
In 2018, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that was sold as a measure to provide for more humane treatment of chickens. Under the law — which goes into effect on Jan. 1 — only eggs produced under the roomier caging standard enshrined in the law can be legally sold in Massachusetts.
That won’t affect locally-produced eggs, because the standard is already being followed here. But that covers only a small percentage of the eggs in our markets.
Almost all eggs produced elsewhere will be illegal for sale. Meaning, we can expect a lot of barren shelves soon — and, along with that, higher prices.
The issue has never really been whether to treat livestock humanely, because everyone is in favor of that. The issue rather is how, precisely, to define humane. This is where Massachusetts has become an outlier, because our law mandates that hens be housed in slightly larger areas than the laws in other states require.
The egg debate is certainly unusual for Beacon Hill, where agricultural controversies are uncommon. It has spurred no shortage of bad jokes and puns. But being out of eggs, one of the most common things people eat, won’t be especially funny. Messing with breakfast is, to put it mildly, very bad politics.
There is an available fix here. The Legislature would have to pass a law modifying the existing law. But because the House and Senate are only meeting in informal sessions, it would have to pass unanimously.
Again, it can be done, but only if lawmakers get cracking (sorry).
Radlo, the egg farmer, believes we would never have reached this sorry state if the industry’s trade groups — specifically, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau — had pushed to address this crisis before the 11th hour, having known since the referendum passed that this was a looming crisis.
It’s pretty clear that this issue should have bubbled up sooner. But I think this also is a graphic illustration of the pitfalls of making law at the ballot box. Issues get debated in broad strokes, but nuances and potential problems are routinely brushed aside, or left to be dealt with later.
Sometimes everything gets worked out. In other cases, like this one, “later” actually comes. Everyone who voted for this meant well, but the details actually matter.
Radlo sold his business — best known for “Eggland’s best” cage-free eggs you see in the supermarkets — in 2013. But he has remained a voice in the industry, working in trade groups. It’s in his blood.
Radlo is also the author of a new book — “Secret Stories of Leadership, Growth, and Innovation — Sustainable Transformation for a Safer, New, and Better World” — that seeks to apply the lessons of his career more broadly.
The most frustrating part of the egg impasse is that there is so little substantive disagreement. Yet here we are, with no resolution.
“The goal here is to have humane, affordable food,” Radlo said. “No one wants a disruption of the food supply.”
He’s right about that. What most of us want is eggs on the shelves, produced in a manner we don’t have to feel terrible about. Surely, there’s a reasonable path to that end. But lawmakers are running out of time to find it.