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Cage-free egg fight heats up on TV

In Bedford, Chip-In Farm employee Lucy Hand collected eggs in January.
In Bedford, Chip-In Farm employee Lucy Hand collected eggs in January.(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

A long-simmering referendum battle over farm animal welfare and food prices is bursting onto Boston-area television screens, as backers and opponents of Question 3 begin airing potent commercials aimed directly at the conscience of voters.

Proponents appeal to their concern about cruelty to hens, pigs, and baby cows. Opponents say the proposed law would sharply increase the price of eggs and meat, hurting the state’s poorest families.

Starting in 2022, the measure would mandate all Massachusetts farms and businesses produce and sell eggs only 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.

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Backers say it’s a modest attempt to protect farm animals from what they characterize as astonishingly inhumane treatment. Opponents insist it is a regressive food tax.

The pro-Question 3 ads juxtapose grainy video of animals in tight cages — which some viewers may find difficult to watch — with high-definition images of animals wandering freely on a sunny, open-air farm.

“Pigs, unable to turn around. Hens, unable to even spread their wings! No animal should experience cruelty like this,” Dr. Susan O’Bell, a Massachusetts veterinarian, says in one of the spots.

“All animals deserve humane treatment, including farm animals,” says Sean Stanton a Great Barrington farmer in the other 30-second commercial.

“Join us and vote yes on Question 3, for healthier animals, safer food for your family, and to prevent the cruelty,” Stanton continues. (Opponents dispute that the measure would make animals healthier or food safer, or that current practices are cruel.)

The anti-Question 3 ad is narrated by Diane Sullivan, a Medford mother who is managing the opposition campaign. She has spent years working with low-income families and has struggled with poverty herself.

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“This is a new food tax our low-income and working poor neighbors can least afford,” she says in the spot, over video of people buying eggs. “It will steal their affordable choices. Please stand up for our most vulnerable citizens. Vote no on Question 3.”

Both sides agree that the price of eggs will almost certainly go up if the measure passes. But its backers, which include the Humane Society of the United States and the MSPCA, say the uptick will probably be a penny an egg.

Opponents, however, see potential increases of 80 cents or more per dozen — a shift that would have an outsize impact on the lowest-income families.

The top funders backing the anti-Question 3 ad, according to its on-screen disclosure, are the National Pork Producers Council and Forrest Lucas, the co-founder of an oil products company who has spent some of his fortune fighting against Humane Society animal welfare efforts.

Officials with Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice say the spot is airing on Boston-area cable TV backed by $250,000, but that number could increase in the coming days.

A Lucas-backed non-profit with ties to the agriculture industry, Protect the Harvest Action Fund, has also been working to thwart the measure. Other groups also oppose it, including the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which sees the proposed law as “anti-consumer” and from the “do this, don’t do that crowd.”

The top funders supporting the ballot measure push, according to its on-air disclosures, are: the Humane Society; the ASPCA, the MSPCA; Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a company that makes Castile soaps and other body care products; and Maximilian and Deborah Stone, big donors to the Citizens for Farm Animal Protection campaign.

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The spots in support of the measure were made by veteran Democratic ad-man Joe Trippi, and could be backed by more than a million dollars worth of spending through Election Day, according to a person familiar with the effort. They begin airing Friday on Boston- and Springfield-area broadcast TV.

Public polling has found Question 3 leading by a massive margin. But discussion of the measure has largely been overshadowed by two of the other ballot efforts this year: to legalize marijuana and raise the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on state and local politics at bostonglobe.com/politicalhappyhour