The average American eats roughly 150 shell eggs a year, and a referendum on the Massachusetts ballot this November that would require better treatment for hens is expected to raise retail prices for consumers in the Commonwealth by between 1 and 5 cents per shell egg. If those projections are even roughly accurate, the initiative would translate into an additional cost of maybe $10 per Massachusetts resident per year — and probably less.
Raising the cost of food essentials by any amount should never be done lightly, since it’s the most vulnerable who are hit hardest. But in this case, the premium seems like a price worth paying. The Globe endorses the Yes on Question 3 campaign, which would dial up pressure on food producers nationally to treat confined animals with more decency.
The referendum would require that shell eggs produced or sold in Massachusetts come from hens that have enough space to fully spread their wings, effectively outlawing the tiny cages many producers use now. It would also extend similar protections to two other groups of farm animals often kept in confinement: breeding sows (the mother pigs confined in tiny spaces during their pregnancies) and veal calves. On some farms, those calves now spend their short lives in tiny crates, unable to move, before they are slaughtered.
Backers of the referendum, including the Humane Society and the MSPCA, say the point of the measure is to reduce animal suffering while adding pressure to farmers, who are already facing a trend of private-sector buyers like Burger King and McDonald’s moving to require humane practices from their suppliers. The more that buyers and markets will accept only humane products, the greater the incentive for the egg industry to abandon cages.
There has been little organized opposition to the ballot question in Massachusetts, because 98 percent of the state’s eggs come from elsewhere. And within that tiny local industry, only one egg producer — a small family farm in Wendell, with 3,000 hens — would be directly hurt by the law.
Fighting the ballot question, the farm shot a video of the hens and shared it with the Globe. The hens at Diemand Farm are protected from the elements, and from predators, not to mention one another (the phrase “pecking order” has a literal meaning among chickens). The farm believes that its chickens are as happy and well treated as any; what they lose in room to move they gain in not being pecked to death by other chickens. Theirs is a sincere argument, and underscores the point some animal-rights purists make — that there are ethical compromises involved no matter how animals are confined. To state the obvious, the hens can’t tell us which method of confinement they consider better.
But to the greatest practical extent, shouldn’t humane treatment mean letting pigs be pigs, and chickens be chickens, without imposing obvious and unnecessary suffering from confinement? For the price of a movie ticket, Massachusetts voters can help nudge the nation’s farms into treating the animals we rely on every day with a minimal level of compassion.