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I Voted for Question 3, Now What?

I Voted for Question 3, Now What?

Like almost 78% of voters in Massachusetts, I was happy to pull the lever for Question 3, the Massachusetts Minimum Size Requirements for Farm Animal Containment ballot initiative, last November. How could I not feel good about a vote that promised humane treatment for farmed animals in our state’s food supply? 

Motherhood, apple pie and farm-fresh eggs all rolled up into one easy vote. I was proud of my state, a beacon of righteousness in so many realms, and now a leader in a standard that promised national impact. 

The initiative’s goal, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Harris of the Massachusetts Humane Society, one of the lead architects of the campaign, was to protect the well-being of egg-laying hens, breeding pigs and calves raised for veal in Massachusetts or elsewhere. It is the “most expansive regulation of its kind in both the U.S. and the world. Ten other states have passed limits [on] gestation crates and battery cages [Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island] but none of them are as broad as our new
statute promises to be,” says Harris. 

Wow! Go Massachusetts! What a state! 

I’m all for the anti-cruelty animus of the initiative. And I do understand that this is a significant step forward in using regulation to protect animals as more than inanimate inputs to the food system. Most animal cruelty citations are complaint-based, they are mobile enterprises, like dogfights or domestic animal abuse. But factory farms are different. They are anything but mobile and make good sitting targets for inspection and law enforcement. I get that.

But then (and I apologize for the inevitable after-the-fact voter’s remorse), I started to wonder what it all meant to me as a consumer. Would I get better, cleaner, more humane product? And when? Would it cost more? And how would it affect local farmers? So I began to ask questions.

First of all, deep breath. The new rules have yet to be written and the timeline stretches out a bit. The implementation date is January 1, 2022, and the Massachusetts Attorney General has until January 1, 2020, to propose the precise language. Public hearings and a comment period will occur between now and then, though no schedule has been put forth.

The second important fact I learned was that there is precisely one farm operating in Massachusetts that does not currently meet the proposed space requirements. Ah, so the question wasn’t ever about reforming farming practices within our state but about exerting leverage on egg and meat producers whose products are sold within our state. The pocketbook argument. According to Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux, we don’t have any gestation crates in the state, and there is perhaps one farm in Massachusetts (see beginning of paragraph) whose practices will have to change under the new law.

The retail and wholesale grocery companies selling within Massachusetts will bear the burden of the enforcement. Brian Houghton is the senior vice president responsible for regulatory affairs for the Massachusetts Food Association (MFA), the trade association for the grocery industry in Massachusetts. The MFA (not to be confused with that other MFA, on Huntington Avenue in Boston) neither supported nor opposed Question 3. “We don’t condone cruelty to animals,” Houghton says. The devil will be in the details, he explains. “How will this play out? Will each individual store be required to keep a paper certification for every producer in their supply chain? Will it be on their websites?”

Houghton wonders who will be responsible for the certification that each producer is compliant with the Massachusetts requirements—individual stores or chains clearly don’t have the bandwidth to certify practices at the farm level. “As a business owner you have to rely in good faith on the producer’s word.” From Houghton’s perspective, the real ballot question was aimed at producers and citizens in other states—“a sort of ‘warning shot’ to get other states to change their agricultural practices,” he says. “It’s really more of a political statement than a business statement.” For now, the MFA is waiting until the public comment phase begins before getting involved. But they are watching the conversation closely.

Eggs are the center of the conversation, an accessible and economical protein source that families in every income bracket consume on a weekly if not daily basis. Commissioner Lebeaux sees great value in addressing the cruelty to animals issue but he feels quite certain the price of a dozen eggs will go up when the new rules come into effect.

“Eggs,” he notes, “are one of the least expensive protein sources for low-income people. While you might not eat veal that often, eggs are in almost every household’s grocery basket. Only 2% of the eggs sold in Massachusetts are produced in state; 98% come from out of state, with two farms in Maine and Connecticut with five million hens pretty much controlling the Massachusetts egg market,” he says.

Jesse Laflamme, the president of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, headquartered in Monroe, New Hampshire, sells a lot of eggs to Massachusetts consumers and was well aware of Question 3 as the Humane Society advanced the campaign. He has thought a lot about what comes next. The new regulations won’t much affect Pete and Gerry’s, he says, because all their farms already comply with the standard. 

“Even with the regulations, the egg producers won’t look like traditional farms with chickens pecking around the yard for insects and seeds like ours do. They will still be factory farms with 200,000 hens in a single barn on a platform; they’ll just be a little bit bigger, with slightly more acreage, more space on the platforms for the hens. The new standard can satisfy McDonald’s,” he says, “but it won’t be good enough for Pete and Gerry’s.”

Nor does he think that the prices for eggs will increase substantially as a result of Question 3. “I think the impact will be pennies a dozen… not a dollar a dozen, as some have forecast.”

Laflamme’s real concern is how the national egg industry will react to the specific Massachusetts challenge. “Change is coming to the egg industry. They have to face it. Question 3 just accelerated it.” Will Massachusetts become the national standard or will the standard follow a proposed less-restrictive national regulation for cage-free eggs by 2025, three years after the Massachusetts law goes into effect.

“There are now 200 million hens that will have to be cage-free by 2025,” he says. The real difficulty, according to Laflamme, is the uncertainty in the industry about which regulations will prevail. 

“It’s kind of like the GMO law in Vermont. The food industry got itself together to oppose the Vermont bill and force at least a federal GMO labeling law. The egg industry is in the same position now and has to resign itself to the fact that it is happening and lobby for a uniform standard.”

Brad Mitchell, the deputy director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, an independent, non-government membership association that represents Massachusetts farmers, snorted when I asked him if he thought Question 3 would be good for in-state farmers. “People voted with emotion. It wasn’t about consideration for our farmers—though I agree that any ballot question is a good check “It’s kind of like the GMO law in Vermont. The food industry got itself together to oppose the Vermont bill and force at least a federal GMO labeling law. The egg industry is in the same position now and has to resign itself to the fact that it is happening and lobby for a uniform standard.” Brad Mitchell, the deputy director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, an independent, non-government membership association that represents Massachusetts farmers, snorted when I asked him if he thought Question 3 would be good for in-state farmers. “People voted with emotion. It wasn’t about consideration for our farmers—though I agree that any ballot question is a good check and balance on public issues. But the real question is why did they choose Massachusetts?” 

He argues that the champions of Question 3 were ver y strategic. “ They knew in Massachusetts, only one farm would be affected and unlike in a major farm state, they could reduce the opposition. They knew our farming industry couldn’t fund an expensive PR counteroffensive.”

Second, he notes that Massachusetts has a wealthy, mostly urban consumer base with ver y little exposure to animals other than household pets. In the California campaign, he says, the ad campaign for a similar bill superimposed a kitten’s head on a chicken. You get the point. We are softies here in Massachusetts with good-sized checkbooks. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.) And it irked him that the Question 3 campaign fostered a misconception that seemed to lump Massachusetts farmers in with other violators for practices most farmers in Massachusetts abandoned 20 years ago.

“Massachusetts farmers took a hit with this campaign,” he says. Mitchell also predicts that “there’s no way that prices for eggs, veal, pork and chicken sold in Massachusetts aren’t going to go up.”

What really bothers Mitchell is that he worries, as do both Jesse Laflamme and John Lebeaux, that there will be confusion across state lines given that the united egg producers had already come to an agreement about defining cage-free standards, albeit with modestly different language. “Picture this: Massachusetts-based Walmart, BJ’s, Costco, etc. that serve Massachusetts will have to explain why they can't get the eggs the everyone else gets.”

One last jab, echoed by Commissioner Lebeaux: There is likely to be a lawsuit brought by an entity with standing, such as a food service distributor, that characterizes the Question 3 regulation as an infringement of Interstate Commerce provisions. “The clock is ticking,” Mitchell says.

All this makes me kinda wish I’d done more research before I cheerfully pulled the lever. Stay tuned. TM

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