The debate around policing food and controlling the diets of others has been largely captive to the elite and monetized by special interest groups like the $125 million DC-based “non-profit” sponsoring the $2 million Question 3 campaign. I’ve been through homelessness and poverty, and as a potential victim of Question 3, I am crashing their exclusive party. The deceptive ballot statement makes no mention of consumer impacts or animal welfare trade-offs. Question 3 will significantly raise the cost of our most affordable and accessible protein choices, not to mention leaving these farm animals unprotected among their own aggressive natural behaviors, which will harm, injure, and kill more chickens and hogs.
Question 3 is a regressive food tax, a social injustice that will harm those often neglected in these debates. It would cost Massachusetts consumers an additional $95 million for eggs and $154 million for pork products in the first year. Since our state is among the most expensive already, with 800,000 people who require public food assistance, it seems cruel for people who can afford expensive tastes to raise prices for those who struggle every day to feed their families.
The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle reported “soaring” and “skyrocketing prices” when a far more limited law went into effect last year in California. Just like here in Massachusetts, the same outside sponsors promised California voters that it would cost “a penny an egg.” Despite being proven very wrong then, they are sticking to their fiction. According to daily US Department of Agriculture price reports, eggs in California which were previously 16 percent higher than the national average now average 80 percent higher.
Massachusetts consumers can look for themselves at the egg shelf in their local grocery store where, until measures like Question 3 pass, we get to make a choice. Those with expensive tastes can find the expensive eggs they prefer. The cheapest cage-free eggs on the shelf are consistently two to four times more expensive than the most affordable conventional eggs — the very choice that Question 3 would eliminate.
Currently, 90 percent of shoppers purchase the very eggs that Question 3 proposes to outlaw. It is the design of Question 3 sponsors to win at the ballot what they have lost at the checkout counter, and this ballot question is where the biggest money and smallest information can prevail.
University field studies released this summer reveal, for example, that “eggs from small flocks are more likely to contain salmonella.” If one visits enclosed hen housing systems, as I have, the obvious reason is that the chicken manure is segregated from the chicken feed, from their water, and from the eggs we eat. Open systems mingle all of the above in unhealthy (and unappetizing) ways.
The Massachusetts Legislature considered an appealing alternative opposed by Question 3 sponsors, in a bill that would create a livestock care and standards board. But unlike Question 3, it applies to all farm animals, has broad stakeholder involvement, and is evidence-based.
I wonder how Massachusetts voters who reliably express compassion for their vulnerable neighbors would react if, say, a Republican Congress proposed doubling food prices. Would we react indifferently if they propose to reduce food stamp benefits? Would we look critically at the scientific basis of their arguments? Would we question the social justice of having those with money propose taking away choices preferred by the masses? Question 3 sponsors like the Humane Society, with their lavish $50 million payroll, can afford expensive choices, but most will not have to, since they don’t live in Massachusetts.
The policy issues we prioritize as a Commonwealth focus on ensuring justice and providing solutions to those struggling to afford rent, health care, utilities and other basic necessities. Why would we vote to make a severe problem worse by intentionally raising basic food prices?
Diane Sullivan is the campaign manager of Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice.