Attention, omelette lovers.
The price of eggs in Massachusetts will almost certainly go up should voters pass a controversial animal welfare ballot initiative that would mandate that all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens, analysts say.
The referendum, likely to make the November ballot, is backed by a coalition of groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, that argue their push is a modest attempt to shield farm animals from what they characterize as startlingly inhumane treatment. Most laying hens are currently housed in cages in which each bird has less space than a piece of printer paper, too tight to spread its wings, they say.
But mandating more room comes at a cost. Just how costly is a matter of dispute — from 12 cents additional per dozen on the low end to 80 cents or more per dozen on high end. And the larger issue voters will face is whether the added cost, which even economists being paid by the ballot group acknowledge, is worth ensuring hens can stand up and spread their wings.
Cage-free eggs are already available in Massachusetts, but stores can sell other, usually cheaper, types. Prices vary, but a check of a handful of area supermarkets this week found a range of 20 cents to $1.10 more per dozen over the least expensive option.
Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, conceded that prices could go up a little, but said even at the high end of projections — which he disputes
— it would cost the average egg consumer just a dollar more a month.
“There is no doubt,” he said, “that when you account for the increased hidden costs [of caged hens] like increased animal cruelty and increased food safety risk, it’s certainly worth it.”
The egg industry insists that cages are not cruel and disputes that there is an increased food safety risk in eggs from non-cage-free environments. Farmers emphasize that they’re not opposed to cage-free eggs, just against mandating that all eggs sold in Massachusetts be cage-free.
Paul Sauder, a top executive at Sauder’s Eggs, a big producer in Pennsylvania which ships many eggs to Massachusetts, said that for people who can afford to pay the higher prices, the cage-free mandate would not be an issue.
“But there are a lot of people out there that are going to have difficulty paying that increased cost for that dozen of eggs,” he said. “So what are they going to do? They’re going to buy less eggs, which means they’re going to deprive their family of that great source of protein because they can’t afford it.”
He estimates that the Massachusetts ballot question would raise the price by 70 or 80 cents per dozen, maybe more.
The average American eats about 250 eggs a year, including liquid eggs used in baked goods and other items. About 175 or so are shell eggs. Using Sauder’s estimation, that could mean an additional cost of nearly $12 a year per person, or about $60 for a family of five.
Sauder said keeping cage-free hens requires more space, more feed (the hens eat more because they move around more), and results in fewer eggs produced per chicken — all additional costs that get passed onto consumers.
Sauder, whose fourth-generation family company counts Trader Joe’s and Garelick Farms as customers, said his company produces cage-free eggs, organic eggs, and conventional eggs. “We do brown eggs. We do white eggs. We’ll produce whatever the consumer wants to buy and is willing to pay for.”
But, he said, it doesn’t make sense to take away Massachusetts consumers’ choices.
Shapiro, of the Humane Society, countered that there have to be basic social standards for every industry — from textiles to food — even though they do increase the costs of certain goods.
“There have to be some rules with regard to our conduct towards those who can’t defend themselves,” he said. “You’re talking about a cost that is extremely modest by any account with regard to not keeping animals locked in tiny cages.”
The proposed Massachusetts ballot initiative, backed by a coalition called Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, has met the first and most arduous signature-gathering hurdle to make the ballot and is expected to clear the other obstacles that remain to make the November ballot.
It would ban the production and sale in the state of eggs from hens and meat from pigs and calves kept in tight enclosures starting in January 2022. For selling of shell eggs in Massachusetts, each hen would have to have access to at least 1.5 square feet of usable floor space.
The fight over the expected question could be expensive, with television ads coming from both animal welfare advocates and the egg and meat industries. And a key point of contention will be its impact on price.
Depending on which supermarket you go to in the Boston area, the cage-free differential can be tiny or vast.
At Trader Joe’s on Boylston Street in the Back Bay, the cheapest dozen cost $2.79 and the cheapest cage-free dozen cost $2.99.
At the Star Market on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, the cheapest dozen (white) ran $3.19 and the cheapest cage-free dozen (brown) ran $4.29.
So how do you project how much eggs prices might go up if they have to be cage-free?
Reviewing several studies, Charles Augustine, a senior vice president with Compass Lexecon, a consulting firm being paid by advocates to conduct an economic analysis of the ballot question’s impact, said the price increase would be modest. He predicted something on the order of 1 or 2 cents per egg, 12 to 24 cents a dozen, and $1.80 to $3.60 annually, using the average number of whole shell eggs used by Americans.
Some experts in the field say the best place to look to compare prices is California, where the sale of eggs from hens kept in small “battery cages” became illegal at the start of last year.
In a recent paper, Jayson L. Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, and another researcher used grocery store scanner data from California and other states to estimate how California’s animal welfare law changed the price of eggs. Per a dozen eggs, they found it raised prices by around 75 cents on average, a 22 percent increase over what the price of eggs would have been had the laws not gone into effect.
Lusk acknowledged that there are several confounding variables in extrapolating that data to Massachusetts, from last year’s avian influenza outbreak to Massachusetts importing more of its eggs than California (which could make the increase bigger) to the growth of the cage-free industry by 2022 (which could make the increase smaller).
But the overarching conclusion was clear.
“Egg prices are going to increase in Massachusetts” if the ballot measure passes, he said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The question really is ‘how much?’ ”