Massachusetts has become the latest battleground between animal rights activists and their rivals over "cage-free" labeled eggs and meat products — a fight that pits proponents of animal welfare against consumers who could pay more for groceries.
Opponents of a proposed November ballot question that would mandate that eggs sold in the Bay State come from cage-free hens by 2022 argue that the proposal would cause egg prices to skyrocket. The measure would also apply to pork and calves raised for veal.
"Right now Massachusetts families are asking themselves a question: Do I pay my rent or feed my family?" Diane Sullivan, a mother of five who lives in the Boston suburb of Medford said. "You want a cage-free egg? Go for it. But don't take away the only affordable option for people."
Sullivan is a plaintiff in a suit against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy for approving the ballot question's language, which it alleges violates the state constitution. Formerly homeless, she is a registered lobbyist who advocates on behalf of low-income families. Sullivan's now working at a pizza parlor to make ends meet, she said, and is on food stamps.
'Chicken don't like each other. You've heard of henpecking?'
She didn't file the lawsuit on her own. Protect the Harvest, a Missouri-based nonprofit that has ties to the agriculture industry, according to the Center for Public Integrity, is bankrolling her case. The automotive oil tycoon Forrest Lucas founded the organization to combat "animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists."
Sullivan says that Protect the Harvest is not paying her. She is joined in the suit by an academic turned farmer named James H. Dunn who is worried about how the measure will impact livestock practices and food prices.
The Humane Society of the United States supports the ballot measure, similar versions of which became law in Arizona, California, and a few other states.
Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society's vice president of farm animal protection, said that voters have passed cage-free referendums because they overwhelmingly oppose the cruel conditions that animals suffer on factory farms. In California, for example, 63 percent of voters approved the measure.
"The prevention of cruelty to animals is a near-universal value," said Shapiro. "They have crammed animals into smaller spaces to the point now where the standard practices in the industry are out of step with the standard American values of how animals should be treated."
The proposal prohibits chickens, pigs, and calves raised for veal to be "confined so as to prevent a covered animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending the animal's limbs, or turning around freely." If chickens are kept in cages, they must have at least 1.5 square feet of floor space.
Brian Klippenstein, executive director of Protect the Harvest, said that the measure ignores how modern farms handle animal waste and other matters.
"There are trade offs," he remarked. "If you let them out of the cage, they have more room and they can exhibit natural behavior, but you will have two to three times more mortality rates. Chicken don't like each other. You've heard of henpecking? They turn on each other."
Sows are locked up in box-like gestation pens because otherwise they'll eat or kill each other's piglets, Klippenstein added. "It wasn't because the pork producer woke up one day and said, 'Boy, I want to buy some steel.'"
States in the American heartland have enacted or are considering so-called "right to farm" laws that would block measures like those proposed by the Humane Society because they ignore the realities of farming, he noted.
Shapiro suggested that Klippenstein's explanations whitewash the horrors of piggeries and other livestock operations on many farms.
"You look at one of these breeding facilities for pigs," he said. "They are lined up like parked cars. They can't even turn around. These are intelligent, 500-pound animals that are essentially put in a coffin for their entire lives."
After farm conditions, the big question in the Massachusetts referendum comes down to cost — a relative value that depends on one's personal wealth.
"I thought this might be a liberal versus conservative thing," said Klippenstein, referring to when he began working on the issue. "What it really is, is a class thing. There isn't a movement of the proletariat in favor of this stuff. This is Dr. Oz and the Hollywood people and the six-figure nonprofits in Washington trying to dictate food options. It reminds me of queen so-and-so saying, 'Let them eat cake.'"
Undercutting Klippenstein's class angle was the fact that a lawyer his organization hired to work on the case, former Nebraska state attorney general Jon Bruning, once compared welfare recipients to raccoons eating beetles out of a bucket when he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate.
The price of a single egg is slated to increase by a penny when the measure takes effect, claimed Shapiro. That's the minimum possible increase, however. The Boston Globe reported that a dozen eggs could increase by as much as 80 cents.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the amount of egg-laying hens in California fell by roughly 20 percent after a similar measure as the one proposed in Massachusetts took effect, and Golden State chicken farmers had to keep their birds in bigger enclosures. The decline in chickens was attributed to a variety of factors — including higher feed prices amid a drought and avian flu that killed off chickens in the Midwest.
'These animals are still packed into very small places.'
The potential adjustments that come with the adoption of cage-free eggs hasn't discouraged McDonald's, Taco Bell, and other big businesses from pledging to move exclusively to them over the coming years, Shapiro pointed out.
But egg producers maintain that the shift will adversely impact customers.
"Because Massachusetts imports 99 percent of its eggs from other states, there is no question that this proposal, if passed, could have far-reaching, negative consequences for residents in the state who purchase and consume eggs," said a statement by Chad Gregory, chief executive of the United Egg Producers, an industry group.
The he-said-she-said nature of the cage-free debate reflects a paradox in the way Americans think about food, explained James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University who has written about the cultural politics of food production in the US.
"Consumers on the one hand demand that animals be treated well, but on the other hand they don't want to spend $7 on a carton of eggs," McWilliams said, describing the "cage-free" label as a placebo that reconciles the two sides. The label doesn't necessarily mean that the animals in question are free or living outside of cages.
Consumers feel good because they can believe they are eating eggs, bacon, or saltimbocca from relatively comfortable chickens, pigs, and calves. Producers don't need to spend anywhere near as much money as they would if they were raising free-range animals, and they can even charge more for the added value of the cage-free classification. But supposedly "cage-free" chickens, pigs, and calves remain indoors more often than not and don't see much sunlight, if any. They still suffer from diseases, and they can still hurt each other.
"It doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot," McWilliams said of the cage-free designation. "These animals are still packed into very small places. Yes, they have space to open their limbs, but we're talking about nominal improvements. They are just as horrible as what you'd find in a caged situation."
The lawsuit rejects the Humane Society's claims about confined spaces and briefly mentions costs, but it doesn't dwell on them much. Instead, it argues on technical grounds that the proposed initiative concerns subjects that are not "mutually dependent," as required by state law, and holds that farming matters and the sale of certain products in Massachusetts are unrelated.
The state's top court is slated to hear arguments in the case on June 8.
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