Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday approved a compromise that will reshape a 2016 voter-approved law and, they say, avert a statewide egg shortage and likely price spikes come Jan. 1.
A day after the agreement emerged, the Legislature whipped it through two lightly attended legislative sessions and to the desk of Governor Charlie Baker, who has urged lawmakers to get him the bill before year’s end.
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 Massachusetts will disappear from shelves, they said, unless the Legislature changed the standard slated to go in effect in January.
“Today we are solving a real problem about chickens and eggs,” state Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said on the Senate floor.
The bill passed Monday instead requires just 1 square foot per bird in a “multi-tier aviary,” which would allow hens room to move vertically but require less floor space. It also would mandate that cage-free hen houses feature “enrichments that allow [hens] to exhibit natural behaviors,” including scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas.
While it changes a measure overwhelmingly approved five years ago, the agreement reflects what egg industry leaders and animal welfare advocates say are evolving industry standards. More so, the new standard is “considered as humane, or even more humane” than the one passed in 2016, said state Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and the chamber’s lead negotiator on the deal.
The House passed the compromise Monday with no discussion or commentary on the chamber floor.
A spokesman for Baker said he would review the bill. The second-term Republican has said he hoped to sign a bill making changes to the 2016 law before the end of December.
“Everyone is already paying too much at the grocery store and not addressing this egg supply issue will further drive up costs,” he tweeted last week.
House and Senate leaders had spent more than two months reconciling differences in their versions of the bill, even though they both supported the change to the egg industry standard. At issue, however, was 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. Some industry leaders, such as the National Pork Producers Council, had argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has “exacerbated” the “time and cost” of meeting the new, higher standard first passed five years ago.
The Senate had not included a delay in its version.
The chambers ultimately agreed on a 7½-month delay, 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.)
But Senate leaders said they did so reluctantly. Lewis said some in the pork industry have been fighting the changes in Massachusetts and elsewhere to continue using gestation crates, which keep breeding pigs confined and are what Lewis called “horrendously cruel.”
“I want the pork industry to know, in no uncertain terms, that there will be no further extensions for them in Massachusetts,” Lewis said. “They must come into compliance with Massachusetts law . . . if they wish to continue selling their products to our consumers.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.