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Lawmakers reach deal to set new standards for egg industry in Mass., seeking to avert supply shortage next year

An egg is poached.SANG AN/NYT

State legislative leaders on Sunday reached an 11th-hour deal that would set new standards for the egg industry in Massachusetts, potentially averting what industry experts warn would be a catastrophic supply shortage come Jan. 1.

House and Senate leaders announced Sunday night they agreed on language that would reshape key parts of a 2016 voter-approved animal welfare law scheduled to take effect in the new year. Both chambers are expected to take up the compromise Monday, when lawmakers could ship it to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk as long as no lawmakers oppose it.

The timing is key. Without legislative action, eggs born of hens that have less than 1.5 square feet of space could not be sold in the state. It’s a standard industry leaders warn is strict enough to effectively destroy the market: Up to 90 percent of the eggs currently being supplied to the state will disappear from shelves in January, they said, unless the Legislature changes the standard.

The agreement announced Sunday tweaked the requirements, including pushing back the implementation date for new standards on pork sold in the state. The deal will “ensure a stable and affordable egg and pork supply in the Commonwealth that honors the will of the voters,” state Senator Jason M. Lewis and Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, who led the talks between the branches, said in a joint statement.

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Legislative leaders had spent more than two months in closed-door negotiations reconciling different versions of the bill, even though the chambers had both already supported the central change affecting the standards for egg-laying hens.

“If you asked for one word, it would be: relief,” Bill Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council, said of news of the compromise, though he said it remained “puzzling why it took so long” for lawmakers to reach agreement. “As I just advised in an email to our members, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over but the fat lady is approaching the microphone.”

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The flap over the standards dates back to a 2016 ballot measure that Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved, requiring that all pork, veal, and eggs farmed and sold in Massachusetts to come from livestock that was not confined to ultra tight quarters.

The change was set to go into effect in 2022, giving suppliers ample time to adjust to the new standards — and state lawmakers 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 bill that emerged Sunday 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.

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There were disagreements between the branches elsewhere, however. The House and Senate were at odds on the time frame for another change required by the 2016 ballot measure, this one centered on standards for pigs. The House wanted 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 Senate had not included it in its version.

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.

Legislative leaders ultimately settled on delaying it by 7 1/2 months, meaning the requirements on pork will phase in on Aug. 15. The rest of the new standards for eggs and veal will still take effect Jan. 1.

The change appeared to appease industry leaders. Michael Formica, the assistant vice president and general counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, said in a statement Sunday that the council was “grateful for the work of the conference committee.”

Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said in a phone interview Sunday night that the delay was a sticking point in negotiations, calling it a “good faith disagreement between the two branches.”

“The Senate’s view is that [the delay] did not belong in the bill. It wasn’t part of what the voters of Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved in 2016,” he said. “That was just a point of difference that took some time” to resolve.

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Dykema declined to comment on the agreement beyond the statement she and Lewis released.

The bill that emerged Sunday also includes another tweak to the 2016 ballot measure. The state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, in consultation with Attorney General’s Maura Healey’s office, will have to create rules and regulations for implementing the law within six months.

The Legislature had faced intense pressure to reach a deal, with both industry leaders and Governor Charlie Baker pressing them to shore up the state’s egg supply before the Jan. 1 implementation date.

The delay in reaching a deal, however, has introduced another layer of uncertainty. Because lawmakers in November concluded their formal sessions for the year, the compromise bill will have to pass through a so-called informal session. During those sparsely attended meetings, any individual lawmaker can sink a proposal.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.