Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Indiana and 12 other states are suing Massachusetts over its cage-free egg law, asking the US Supreme Court to scramble implementation of the voter-passed initiative.
The law, set to take effect in 2022, will mandate all pork, veal, and eggs farmed — and sold — in Massachusetts come from pigs, calves, and laying hens not confined to tight quarters.
The 13 states say the statute violates the US Constitution, which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among states. They say it will unlawfully force out-of-state farmers to change their production methods if they want to sell their eggs and meat in Massachusetts.
“No state has the right to dictate how other states choose to regulate business operations and manufacturing processes within their own borders,” said Indiana Attorney General Curtis T. Hill Jr., who is leading the charge.
The lawsuit says that the initiative, which passed last year with 78 percent of the Bay State vote, “constitutes economic protectionism and extraterritorial regulation that violates the Commerce Clause. Under the Animal Law, farmers in Plaintiff States must now submit to Massachusetts’ laws.”
But the Humane Society of the United States, the main backer of the Massachusetts ballot initiative, said Massachusetts has every right to put in place laws meant, in part, to protect public health.
“Opponents of Massachusetts’ animal welfare law are grasping at straws in a legal Hail Mary to try to force substandard and inhumane products onto Massachusetts consumers,” said Ralph Henry, who directs litigation for the animal welfare group. “We expect this latest legal action will fail, just as attempts to invalidate similar common-sense food safety laws have failed in California.”
Farming interests vociferously deny there’s any increased food safety risk in eggs or meat from tightly confined animals.
Pork and veal raised in larger enclosures and cage-free eggs are already available in Massachusetts, but stores are allowed to sell other, often cheaper, types of meat and eggs. The law will change that. Starting in 2022, only eggs from hens with access to at least 1.5 square feet of usable floor space per hen will be legal to sell in Massachusetts, for example.
Backers of the ballot law, including the Humane Society, argued their push was a modest attempt to shield farm animals from what they characterized 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 said.
But the egg industry insists that cages are not cruel. And farmers emphasize that they’re not opposed to cage-free eggs, just against mandating that all eggs sold in Massachusetts be cage-free.
During the ballot campaign, opponents argued the effort will raise the cost of eggs, a key source of protein and, effectively, impose a regressive tax with an outsized impact on poor families.
The lawsuit makes a similar argument. “As a result of increased production costs and decreased production output, the Animal Law will increase prices of eggs, pork, and veal for consumers across the nation,” it argues.
A declaration from Jayson L. Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University who has studied the Massachusetts law and other similar measures, is included in the lawsuit.
He discusses a paper he and another researcher wrote. It used grocery store scanner data from California and other states to estimate how a California animal welfare law changed the price of eggs.
An early version of the paper found that law — with similar mandates to the Massachusetts initiative — raised prices by about 75 cents on average per dozen, a 22 percent increase over what the price of eggs would have been had the laws not gone into effect.
Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura T. Healey, said the office is reviewing the lawsuit.
In addition to Indiana, the other plaintiff states are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The Supreme Court has jurisdiction, they say, because US law clearly states that controversies between multiple states should play out on the highest judicial stage.
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