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Egg industry to fight ballot initiative

The head of the country’s biggest egg industry group is pledging a creative campaign to counter a proposed 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative that would mandate Massachusetts farms and businesses produce and sell only eggs from cage-free hens.

Chad Gregory, president and chief executive of United Egg Producers, said he came to Massachusetts recently to huddle with other opponents of the measure, which would also prohibit the sale of pork from pigs raised in or born of a sow raised in a small crate and veal from calves raised in a very tight enclosure. And, he said, they are considering all their options.


First up, he said, the informal coalition of groups opposed to the ballot push will commission an independent economic impact study of what the referendum, if successful, might do to consumers in the state — especially the lowest-income residents, such as those using food stamps.

The study, he said, would be followed by polling.

The ballot measure is backed by several prominent animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Animal Rescue League of Boston. They say it would only impose modest standards, beginning in 2022, to protect farm animals from cruelty. It would, they emphasize, simply mean animals have enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around, and extend their limbs.

But opponents say it is certain to raise food prices and limit consumer choices at the supermarket.

Gregory disputed a Politico story that said UEP, which represents companies that account for about more than 90 percent of all the eggs produced in the United States, “is conceding the fight” over the ballot question.

“We are definitely not conceding,” he said, voice rising. “United Egg Producers is not conceding. We are not just going to allow the Humane Society of the United States to try to pass this referendum without any opposition at all.”


But, Gregory said, the group would not be reprising the same strategy it used against a 2008 California animal welfare ballot measure that included what was effectively a cage-free mandate for egg farmers. Then, he said, UEP raised and spent $10 million on a professional campaign in opposition. The measure still passed, 64 percent to 37 percent.

“To try to duplicate that same kind of campaign in Massachusetts just doesn’t make sense,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re going to get more strategic, more creative, more clever and try to figure out a different way than raising $10-15 million from egg farmers to try to alter the outcome of this.”

But he said it’s quite possible the effort in Massachusetts will involve raising and spending money.

Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, which is opposed to the ballot effort, said Wednesday his group is awaiting the economic impact study, and would then consider its options.

But, he said, the measure would impact virtually no farmers in this state, because so few use the practices that would be prohibited.

“This is about whether consumers want their food to get more expensive,” he said. “Simple as that.”

Proponents of the push, in a coalition called Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, have been working to gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to make the ballot next year — and signature gatherers have been spotted at places such as the entrance of a Whole Foods Market in Cambridge, which only sells cage-free eggs.


Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society of the United States, responded to opponents’ declarations in a statement. People in this state “recognize that it’s cruel and inhumane to lock animals in tiny cages for their whole lives,” she said. “That’s why more than 15,000 have already signed petitions to put this common sense measure on next year’s ballot.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics at