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Opponents call cage-free egg ballot question rotten

Chickens at the Chip-in Farm in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Chickens at the Chip-in Farm in Bedford, Massachusetts.(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

A dispute over a ballot question that would mandate all eggs sold in Massachusetts be from hens that are cage-free is headed to the state’s highest court, a sign of the increasing intensity in a battle between agricultural interests and animal welfare advocates.

The Supreme Judicial Court on June 8 will hear arguments in a lawsuit backed by a group allied with the agriculture industry, according to a filing this week.

The organization, Protect the Harvest Action Fund, is disputing Attorney General Maura Healey’s approval of the referendum language, arguing it doesn’t follow the state Constitution’s requirements for initiative petitions.

And the nonprofit group, which says it advocates for affordable food, is raising the specter of a full-fledged political battle against the ballot question, should the lawsuit fall short.

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The proposed ballot item and resulting law, backed by the Humane Society of the United States, would require that, starting in 2022, Massachusetts farms and businesses produce and sell only eggs from cage-free hens; pork from pigs not raised in or born of a sow raised in a small crate; and veal from calves not raised in very tight enclosures.

The push, its backers insist, is simply a modest attempt to protect farm animals from what they characterize as astonishingly inhumane treatment. But the lawsuit appears to be an effort to shift the narrative from one of animal welfare to prices at the grocery store.

The plaintiffs in the opponents’ lawsuit are a mother on food stamps with five children in Medford who’s worried about skyrocketing food costs and a farmer from the rural town of Wendell who is concerned about government and “sentimentalists” interfering in the raising of livestock.

Among the plaintiffs’ assertions: that the question violates the constitutional requirement that initiatives contain only subjects “which are related or which are mutually dependent.” They argue that the effort, poised to garner enough signatures to make November’s ballot, is in effect asking voters to take a stand on two separate and unrelated issues: whether certain farming practices should be banned in Massachusetts, and whether certain types of products should be banned from being sold in the state.

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Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Healey, said the attorney general certifies “ballot initiatives based on the law, to see if they meet certain constitutional requirements. We work cooperatively with parties who wish to challenge our rulings. The most important thing is to get the right result.”

The Globe has reported that the price of eggs in Massachusetts will almost certainly go up should the ballot question be approved by voters. But there is great dispute between those in favor and opposed to the ballot question about by how much. Estimates range from 12 cents additional per dozen on the low end to 80 cents or more per dozen on high end.

One of the two plaintiffs in the case is Diane Sullivan, the Medford mother. Sullivan said that, like many other families, she already struggles to put healthy food on the table and can’t afford the likely increase in the cost of eggs that the ballot initiative would prompt if passed.

“Let’s not diminish the purchasing power of people who have so little right now,” Sullivan said in an interview. “That’s what this initiative would do.”

Jonathan R. Lovvorn, the top animal protection lawyer at the Humane Society of the United States, blasted the lawsuit as a ploy by Big Agriculture, noting that one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers is Jon Bruning, a former attorney general of Nebraska. The website for Bruning’s firm claims expertise in defending “livestock producers’ ability to raise and care for their livestock” against animal rights groups.

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Bruning gained national attention in 2011 when he was captured on video comparing welfare recipients to raccoons scooping beetles out of a bucket. Raccoons, Bruning said, are “going to do it the easy way, if we make it easy for ’em, just like welfare recipients all across America.”

In a telephone interview, the Humane Society’s Lovvorn said:

“This is clearly a lawsuit cooked up by factory farmers in Nebraska who are cynically using concerns for the poor to promote their agenda. The problem for struggling families in Massachusetts is not a couple of pennies per egg. The problem is people like Jon Bruning who compare them to scavenging raccoons.”

Lovvorn dismissed the lawsuit as lacking in merit and making a weak argument. In fact, he said, “the plaintiffs don’t seem to understand Massachusetts law.”

(The original lawsuit also misspelled the name of Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general.)

Sullivan, the Medford mother, who is also an advocate and lobbyist for low-income people, rejected the assertion that she is a pawn for agricultural interests. She said she is representing Massachusetts families like her own, and filed the suit to make sure that low-income people “have a seat at the table in this discussion.”

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The other plaintiff is James H. Dunn, a retired academic with a PhD in literature who raises vegetables, chickens, and horses on his small family farm.

He said proponents of the ballot question are “sentimentalists” — people who, he said, want to have the emotion without having to pay the price of the emotion.

“I think these people are misinformed, inexperienced, and sentimental by the worst possible definition of that. And they’ll cause a lot of economic problems,” he said. “What happens to the price of eggs?”

Both Sullivan and Dunn were recruited by Protect the Harvest Action Fund, which is paying for the lawyers to bring the case but not paying the plaintiffs, according to its executive director, Brian Klippenstein.

He acknowledged that the group has ties to the agriculture industry, but said as a social- welfare nonprofit organization it can and does shield its donors — even as it advocates on political issues.

If the lawsuit falls short, he said, “Plan B is to carry out a campaign to try to win the votes,” which might involve polling, television ads, and a full-fledged voter persuasion effort to convince people in Massachusetts that the ballot push is effectively a “regressive food tax” on the poor.

“This is the first bite of the apple,” Klippenstein said.

“We’re among those who are prepared to run a campaign against it if it makes it on the ballot.

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“We will be urging any partners we can find to join the battle to defeat it.”

View the original suit here:


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.