Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Mass. can afford to be kinder to animals

1/7/2016 - Bedford, MA - Chip-In Farm - Neil Couvee, cq, the owner of Chip-in Farm in Bedford, MA, says the farm raises 3,000 laying hens, which produce approximately 200 dozen eggs each day for sale in the farm's general store. Massachusetts voters may vote to adopt a measure requiring all eggs produced and sold in the state to be cage-free. Topic: 08eggspic. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Massachusetts voters may vote to adopt a measure requiring all eggs produced and sold in the state to be “cage-free.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ad portraying Question 3, the farm-animal-treatment ballot question, as a disaster for Massachusetts consumers, one that will send food prices into the stratosphere.

That’s the claim of the so-called “Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice.”

Food Tax Injustice? “Hmm,” citizens of Massachusetts may say, “we don’t tax food sold in stores here.” Ah, but you see, that’s a reference to the supposed costs Question 3 would impose.

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The principal argument has been about eggs. Proponents say any increase will be minimal, maybe a penny or two per egg. They note that restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Denny’s, and grocery chains and food suppliers like Albertsons, BJ’s, Costco, Price Chopper, Target, and Walmart wouldn’t otherwise have agreed to phase out cages in their egg-supply chain.

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When I did a recent two-store survey, one of the best deals I found was on Nellie’s Free Range Eggs, on special at Roche Bros., at $2.99 a dozen, and cheaper than any eggs except the supermarket’s own brand, at $2.79. Several cage-free brands were price competitive with non-cage-free offerings.

Free range like Nellie’s is a long way from what Question 3 proposes. The ballot question would simply end the extreme confinement of laying hens, veal calves, and pigs, little of which takes places in Massachusetts. It would also ban the sale here of products from animals confined that way, and in the case of pigs, born to sows kept in those conditions. The initiative petition stipulates that those animals can’t be kept in a way that prevents them from lying down or standing up, from fully extending their limbs, or from turning freely around.

So who, exactly, are the “citizens” funding the opposition’s ads? One is the National Pork Producers Council, a $220,000 donor to the cause. A second is eccentric multimillionaire Forrest Lucas, a rags-to-riches oil-products magnate, cattle rancher, and all-around right-winger from Indiana, who has given $195,000. Lucas is a man who seems dead set against any and all legislation to improve the treatment of animals.

He believes animal-rights activists have destroyed farming in Europe — which might come as news to several of Europe’s 12 million farmers. He and his organization, Protect the Harvest, disdain those who “see animals living in close proximity and . . . view that as a negative.” Imagine looking askance at a factory farmer who has generously allotted a caged chicken the floor space an iPad would occupy. The temerity of those damn meddlers!

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“In reality,” writes Protect the Harvest, “these measures are taken to ensure greater health of the animals. . . . Farmers and ranchers have a vested interest in keeping their animals as healthy as possible in order to make a better product for consumers.”

After all, if a hen has room to stretch her wings and turn around, who knows what she’ll do next? Why, she might just start dancing the tango.

But then, mirabile dictu, I spotted a third donor, a real, live Massachusetts citizen: attorney Thomas Kiley, who gave $100. Now, Kiley, a former assistant attorney general, is an oft-hired legal gun on ballot questions. But he also opposes Question 3. Why?

“If I am going to eat you, it doesn’t matter whether I have patted you nicely on the head,” he told me.

Mind you, Citizen Kiley is not Hannibal Lecter; he was speaking here of farm animals.

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But does it really make sense that, just because we eventually use an animal for food, we have no obligation to afford it a basic level of decent treatment until then? Or, in the case of hens, while it is producing eggs for us? That we shouldn’t care at all about its living conditions?

Not to me. Not when Question 3 lets us do better, at minimal cost.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.