A last-minute legislative deal to rewrite key sections of a voter-approved animal welfare law landed on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk on Monday, less than two weeks before a new one was scheduled to start regulations that could affect the availability of eggs and pork in Massachusetts. .
After House and Senate negotiators announced a deal on Sunday night, branches quickly agreed to a bill on Monday (S 2603) updating the housing standards for laying hens and delaying for seven and a half months the start of the ban on the sale of pork products from cruelly confined animals.
The bill revises a law passed by voters in 2016, just weeks before enforcement began, drawing sharp criticism from the Humane Farming Association, whose executive director has accused other advocacy groups animal rights which support the measure of being “co-opted” by commercial interests.
Lawmakers said they believed the bill would help avoid shortages of available eggs and pork products that could stem from the new law, even though Senators drew a line in the sand on the application of cruelty standards to protect pigs.
“The result without this bill for Massachusetts has been crystal clear the entire time: no eggs, or ridiculously expensive eggs,” said Senator Becca Rausch, a Democrat from Needham who co-chairs the environment committee, natural resources and agriculture and was one of three senators who worked out the compromise with the House. “Today we are solving a real problem with chickens and eggs, and we did it through an open, accessible and transparent process without thwarting the will of the voters.”
Representative Carolyn Dykema, senior House negotiator on the six-member conference committee that produced the deal after closed negotiations, said failure to implement the changes would have created “potentially dramatic changes in the availability of essential foods.
“Egg farmers told us that egg prices could skyrocket,” Dykema said in a statement. “Local businesses were told that only 10% of their pork needs would be met and that the products available would likely carry higher price tags.
The legislation also transfers much of the regulatory responsibility from the Attorney General’s office to the State Department of Agricultural Resources. Healey’s office would retain its current executive authority.
The National Department of Agriculture has been headed since 2015 by Commissioner John Lebeaux. A certified horticulturist, Lebeaux’s official biography describes him as “the grandson of a farmer and son of a nursery owner” who previously served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association.
In 2016, voters approved a ballot implementing new standards for the treatment of farm animals and the products they produce.
The law, which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2022, prohibits all farm owners in Massachusetts from cruelly confining an animal. It also prohibits the sale of shell eggs and pork and veal from animals kept in violation of those standards, including products made in other states.
Like originally approved by voters, the law defined cruel confinement as any enclosure that prevents “lying down, standing, fully extending the limbs of the animal or turning around freely.” For laying hens, this meant that each bird needed to be able to spread both wings without touching the side of a pen and have access to at least 1.5 square feet of “usable floor space” per hen.
Representatives of industry and some animal rights groups say that in the five years since the ballot issue won with more than 77 percent of the vote, practices on the ground have significantly increased. exchange. Many egg makers are now using aviary systems, which allow hens to access more vertical space, with a standard of one square foot of floor space per animal.
Under the compromise legislation, farmers could house hens with only one square foot of floor space per bird if they are placed in “tiered aviaries, partially slatted cage-free housing systems, or some other system. cage-free housing that provides hens with unrestricted access to vertical space. “Single-level pens should always provide 1.5 square feet per hen.
“The bill requires that enrichments be included in those vertical aviaries that allow hens to display natural behaviors, including perches, scratching areas, nesting boxes and dust bathing areas,” the said. Senator Jason Lewis, the chief Senate negotiator on the bill. “In other words, this standard is seen as humane or even more humane than the standard included in the 2016 ballot question.”
Over the past seven months, a coalition of single-ballot opponents, including the New England Brown Egg Council and the Humane Society of the United States, have come together to pressure lawmakers to change the law, which they believe would maintain animal welfare while reflecting the widespread adoption of aviary systems on the production side.
In a joint statement, the Humane Society, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hailed the success of the bill.
“With the passage of S. 2603, the Massachusetts legislature strengthened existing law, passed in the ballot as Question 3 in 2016, to now mandate cage-free housing with critical behavioral enrichments for birds, such as nesting boxes, perches and dust – swimming and scratching areas, ”the groups said. “Importantly, lawmakers have also extended the application of Question 3 protections to hens kept for liquid eggs – a measure that will protect at least two million additional hens each year.”
But support for change is not unanimous among animal rights groups. Bradley Miller, executive director of the Humane Farming Association, called the legislation a “devastating setback for the protection of farm animals and a major betrayal of voters in Massachusetts.”
Miller said in an interview that aviary systems have been around for “decades” and that reducing the standard from 1.5 square feet per bird to one square foot per hen will allow larger manufacturers to confine more animals in. tight spaces, although birds are able to climb to higher platforms.
“The egg industry and a few co-opted animal groups mistakenly present this cruel reduction of space to just one square foot per hen as an improvement on Question 3,” he said, referring to the 2016 ballot question. “In effect, this is an outright repeal and replacement of the central and most important provision of Question 3 against cruelty to animals.”
Miller said he hoped Massachusetts residents would urge Baker to veto the bill. The Humane Farming Association, which sued Attorney General Maura Healey in January over a delay in developing regulations, “is actively exploring a subsequent ballot measure to clarify that these animals need more space and that these plans to cruel factory farming laws must be repealed, ”Miller added.
For pork products, the legislation does not include any major reforms or amended definitions and instead kicks in on the effective date of the ban that voters approved seven and a half months later.
Companies could continue to sell pork from confined pigs in a way voters deemed cruel until August 15, 2022 under the bill, after which all pork products in Bay State would be expected. come from humane housed animals.
Neither the original legislation that followed the committee process nor the Senate bill approved in June included a change in the timeline for the ban on certain pork products. The House Ways and Means Committee added language delaying the start date from January 1, 2022 to January 1, 2023 before the entire House approves its version in October.
Lewis, who called his parliamentary counterpart Dykema a “tough negotiator” on Monday, said the trio of senators “reluctantly agreed” to a seven-and-a-half-month deadline.
“I want the pork industry to know unequivocally that there will be no more extension for them in Massachusetts,” said the Democrat of Winchester, addressing the Senate from a distance. “They must comply with Massachusetts law, overwhelmingly approved by our voters in 2016, if they are to continue selling their products to our consumers.”
Dykema, a Democrat from Holliston, has not taken as strong a stance on the August 15 deadline as Lewis has, leaving room in her statement for lawmakers to revisit the matter in the future.
“The extension of the implementation schedule for pork products included in the final bill and approved by all participants was not taken lightly,” she said. “There was a reason why the 2016 ballot issue required a two-year transition from the enactment of the regulations to the date of implementation. to COVID-19. With this bill, we will ensure a smooth transition to the new humane animal care standards that we all support. “
“The House speakers fully support the conference report,” Dykema added. “Since future legislatures cannot be bound by our actions, any future proposals that might be made would be assessed, as they always are, on substance and with a full understanding of the context and potential impacts.”
Miller, who has criticized the addition of a change to the deadline for products from cruelly confined pigs as “all made in the dark,” said he expects industry interests are pushing for another delay as August approaches.
“This so-called compromise of delaying promulgation by seven and a half months is a farce,” he said. “That will change once the legislature returns to session. You can count on the pork industry looking to push that date back even further.”
Baker did not indicate whether he plans to sign the bill, but he urged lawmakers to reach consensus and quickly send him a proposal with the specter of a supply disruption.
Beacon Hill has intervened on several occasions to change laws that voters approved at the ballot box. In 2016, the Legislature voted to delay the implementation of several sections of the law legalizing recreational marijuana in order to consider changes to the voter-supported measure.
A year after it became available, lawmakers suspended a charitable donation tax deduction that voters approved in a 2000 poll question. Since then, Democratic leaders have resisted Baker’s calls to revive the measure.