hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2016


Eggs, farms and the law

Mass. ballot question launches debate on agricultural practices

Sara Housman, the marketing manager at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, shows off some of the co-op’s locallly sourced eggs. Susan Sabino photoBy JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer



Sara Housman, the marketing manager at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, shows off some of the co-op’s locallly sourced eggs. The store only sells eggs from cage-free hens under a policy adopted in 2006. A November ballot question aims to set the same standard for stores across Massachusetts. Susan Sabino photo

The eggs in the refrigerator cases at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown come only from farms with cage-free hens.
And nearly all of the farms in Berkshire County and the rest of Massachusetts raise chickens and other animals in conditions that do not involve small cages or other kinds of extreme confinement.

But a majority of the eggs found on most area supermarket shelves come from out-of-state producers -- factory farms where chickens and other animals may be kept in very tight conditions that critics contend are inhumane and unhealthy.

A November ballot question in Massachusetts aims to change that.

A yes vote on Question 3 in November would approve the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which would halt the sale in Massachusetts of pork, veal and eggs from animals that have been confined in ways the measure deems inhumane. If the proposal passes and survives a possible court challenge, it would take effect in 2022.

The ballot question is raising a philosophical and sometimes emotional debate that touches on economics and social justice as well as animal rights and agricultural practices.

Among the mainly small-scale farmers of western Massachusetts, many say they support the goals of the proposed law. But some also question whether the ballot box is the best place to set rules for farming practices that are not always fully understood by the broader public.

The proposed law, placed on the ballot by citizen petition, would make it illegal for a farm owner or operator within Massachusetts to “knowingly cause any covered animal to be confined in a cruel manner.” It defines covered animals as veal calves, egg-laying hens, and pigs, and it defines “confined in a cruel manner” as keeping animals in enclosures that are small enough to prevent them from “lying down, standing up, fully extending the animal’s limbs, or turning around freely.”

Both supporters and opponents of the measure, however, say only one egg farm in Massachusetts – and no veal or pork producers – currently use the practices the ballot question would ban.

More significantly, the measure would prevent the sale in Massachusetts of any veal, pork or eggs from animals kept in these conditions even at out-of-state farms. So whatever economic pain the ballot question imposes on farmers would be distributed mainly among large-scale operators in neighboring states and across the country.

The proposed law would, however, directly affect Massachusetts retailers, who would be responsible for ensuring that the sources of eggs, pork or veal they sell do not fall under the act’s definition of cruel confinement of animals.


National push for change
Although its focus is on Massachusetts, Question 3 is part of a broader national movement to address the treatment of farm animals. Ten other states so far have passed measures addressing goals similar to those of the Massachusetts initiative.

In California, 63 percent of voters backed a 2008 ballot proposition that outlawed the sale of eggs from hens kept in battery cages, which typically have a basal area smaller than a letter-size sheet of copy paper. The California law, which took effect at the beginning of last year, mirrored the current Massachusetts proposal, with provisions covering veal and pork as well as egg producers.

Supporters of these measures decry what they see as cruelty in practices that remain widespread at large-scale farms in other states. Veal calves, for example, are chained by the neck in crates too narrow for them to turn around or lie down. Pigs used for breeding are also kept immobilized.

Activists say these practices, in addition to being inhumane, are unsafe and unsanitary, leading to the spread of diseases including salmonella and E. coli. Keeping laying hens in tightly spaced battery cages also results in increased use of antibiotics as farmers try to guard against infections that can spread quickly among animals kept in such close proximity.

Some also believe the stressful conditions of confinement may cause biochemical reactions in the animals that make their meat and eggs less healthful. And they say the keeping of many animals in close confinement puts a heavier burden on the surrounding environment, particularly because of the need to handle large quantities of animal wastes.

Consumer concerns about farming practices have already spurred some changes in the industry, as evidenced by the proliferation of eggs on supermarket shelves that are labeled cage-free, antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed and so on. Although evaluating farms’ environmental practices and whether they treat animals humanely was once the concern of a small niche of consumers, these concerns now are much more mainstream.

Stephanie Harris, the campaign director for Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, the coalition working to pass Question 3, suggested the ballot proposal would simply set minimum standards for the industry.

“This initiative is part of a global trend to curb factory-farm abuses,” Harris said. “The public is reacting, and major retailers and other food businesses are responding.”


Efficiency and cost
Others say the issues are less clear-cut and reflect larger trade-offs involving the affordability and availability of food and the most efficient methods of production. In addition to organizations representing large-scale agriculture, those opposing the ballot question have included some anti-hunger activists who say the proposal would inevitably raise the price of staple food products.
The owners of Diemand Farm, the only egg farm in Massachusetts that would be directly affected by the ballot question, have argued that battery cages are safer and more sanitary than a cage-free operation would be. The farm, in the rural Franklin County town of Wendell, east of Greenfield, has 3,000 laying hens and accounts for perhaps 2 percent of the eggs sold in Massachusetts, according to one farming organization’s estimate.

Contacted for this report, members of the Diemand family said they have had to stop giving media interviews because of the large number of requests. They said their views were well represented in a report aired on Boston public television station WGBH. (The interview is available on WGBH’s Web site at news.wgbh.org/2016/06/01/local-news/watch-closer-look-ballot-question-how-we-treat-our-farm-animals.)

In the WGBH report, and in past interviews with The Recorder of Greenfield and The Republican of Springfield, owner Peter Diemand said his farm’s caged chickens are not under stress. And when his family in years past tried raising egg hens outside of cages, Diemand said, it caused problems: The hens pecked at one another, sometimes killing and cannibalizing the weaker birds. Or, frightened by thunderstorms or even car headlights, the hens would pile into a corner, suffocating the animals at the bottom of the heap.

Diemand estimated in one interview that it would cost $100,000 to convert the farm to a cage-free operation, and co-owner Anne Diemand Bucci suggested the family might simply get out of the egg business if the ballot question passes.

Opponents of the ballot question say cage-free production is more costly because it requires more space and more feed (hens have bigger appetites if they move around more) -- and because cage-free hens produce fewer eggs

Some also point out that in many large-scale operations, cage-free hens are still kept in crowded conditions where it can be a challenge to maintain good sanitation.

The proposed law wouldn’t outlaw caging of hens, however, but would require that any cages be at least 216 square inches per hen – more than three times the size of typical “battery cages.”


Taking it to the voters
The coalition backing the ballot initiative -- Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, also known as Vote Yes on Question 3 (www.citizensforfarmanimals.com) -- includes the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection organizations.

The Yes side also is supported by the United Farm Workers, the Center for Food Safety and has about 1,000 individual or group endorsements from farmers, veterinarians, public health professionals, environmentalists and others.

As in California, the ballot question’s supporters say they became frustrated after years of trying to have the issue addressed through the state legislative process. In August 2015, they formally launched their campaign to put the issue on the statewide ballot. In the subsequent two-step qualification process, about 1,000 volunteers gathered some 170,000 signatures.

“We’ve received a lot of support and gained far more than the necessary number of signatures, on an all-volunteer basis, without using paid signature gatherers,” Harris said.

Rather than address all aspects of farm animal treatment, the sponsors deliberately kept the measure modest and limited it to specific practices to keep it manageable, she said.
“It’s focused on the animals that are suffering the most,” and Harris, who is also the Massachusetts state director of the Humane Society of the United States. “It includes exemptions, such as the handling of animals during veterinary care and transportation. Also, it doesn’t go into effect until 2022 -- to give everyone enough time to prepare for its implementation.”

Unnecessary regulation?
Opponents of Question 3 include the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, United Egg Producers, the Retail Association of Massachusetts and other organizations, farmers and individuals.

Anti-poverty activist Diane Sullivan and farmer James Dunn joined forces in a court challenge that sought to block the ballot measure, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected their case this summer.

Brad Mitchell, the Farm Bureau’s director of policy, said his organization is not opposed to the specific goal of the initiative. But he said the federation’s members believe the details of the proposal are misguided – and that the effort is not the best way to deal with concerns about animal welfare.

He pointed out that almost all the egg farms in Massachusetts already have “free range” or “cage free” environments or other less confining forms of animal housing.

“It is not necessary, because that is not a problem here, due to the nature of farming in Massachusetts,” Mitchell said. “The types of animal housing the measure addresses are associated with large factory farms, not the smaller operations we have.”

Mitchell said some farmers worry that the referendum could open the door to more sweeping initiatives by animal rights groups.

“We’re more worried about what might come next, because these things tend to snowball,” he said.
He said it would be more effective for proponents to educate consumers about the larger issues of animal treatment they are concerned about -- and to use market pressures to achieve their goals.
“Consumers in Massachusetts have shown their preferences for local products that are based on humane practices, and farmers are providing that,” he said. “The market is working, and we believe that is the preferred approach.”

He emphasized that the federation is not opposed to regulations. He said the organization has been pushing for the state to establish a board of standards that would include public health officials, farmers, animal-rights advocates and others.

“Our members recognize that there are real issues and problems that arise regarding the proper treatment of animals,” he said. “But standards and solutions should be determined by experts with an understanding of farming, rather than an emotional public response to 30-second ads.”
Proponents of the ballot initiative, however, say self-regulation would be subject to industry pressures – and that the public’s concerns about animal welfare would become secondary. They also say the measure is necessary to keep inhumane farming operations out of Massachusetts.


Fallout for retailers
If the measure passes, the more immediate in-state effects would be on retailers – and perhaps on consumer prices and the products available on store shelves.

The potential economic effects are a matter of debate, and they also touch on the overall economic structure of the food system.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retail Association of Massachusetts, said his organization opposes the measure but doesn’t plan to actively campaign against it.

“Our bottom line is that the humane association should not be making such decisions for the farmers and consumers of Massachusetts,” Hurst said. “Regardless of one’s opinion on those farm practices, this is an interstate commerce issue. Most of the food in question comes from other states. The appropriate place to settle it is in Washington, D.C., not on a state ballot issue or in the statehouse.”

Hurst also suggested the measure could raise prices for eggs and other products and might make some of them hard to find.

“It’s regressive and could hurt low-income consumers,” he said. “There’s no real information about what will happen to the availability or prices of the affected food products if this is passed.”
The liability and enforcement requirements will make life more difficult for retailers, he added.
“It’s creating more red tape and costs,” Hurst said. “The large chains may be able to handle that. But my concern is for the mom-and-pop retailers who don’t have the resources to research every product they order.”

Harris, of the Vote Yes campaign, responded that the measure does not require excessive research or documentation -- and that written certification by suppliers will be sufficient in most instances to satisfy those requirements.

Harris also contends the ballot measure would not significantly raise prices.
“Studies have indicated that these measures would only add a few cents to the cost of eggs, and studies of the pork industry have shown that it can actually cost 11 percent less to house pigs in better conditions,” she said.

On a national level, she added, about 100 major corporations that buy and sell food products have pledged to move toward using 100 percent cage-free eggs in the coming years. These companies include Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and many other supermarket and restaurant chains.


Already cage-free
Some local food retailers in the Berkshires said they don’t expect passage of Question 3 to be a burden for them.

Bob Nichols, co-owner of Harry’s, an independent supermarket in Pittsfield, said most of the eggs his store carries come from cage-free hens from a farm in the Hudson Valley.

“I don’t foresee it as a problem, because we focus on grade A products and suppliers,” he said.
Staff at Wild Oats Market, a member-owned cooperative in Williamstown that specializes in natural and health foods, said the co-op wouldn’t be affected because of its orientation and sources.

“In 2006, Wild Oats set a policy of only selling cage-free eggs,” explained Sara Housman, the co-op’s marketing manager. “So we won’t have to make a transition.”

A similar policy is in place at Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington.
David Durfee, the operations manager at Wild Oats, said the co-op also carries meats from animals that are raised humanely.

“The standards in the initiative go along with the values of Wild Oats and are similar to what we already practice in our sourcing of products,” Durfee said. “We deal with a finite number of suppliers. They are either certified as organic or cage-free, and many are farmers in this region. So trust is easily verifiable.”

Durfee said he personally supports Question 3, but he recognizes that there are dilemmas involved.

“On balance it is probably a good thing,” he said. “Cage-free eggs seem to be the way the industry is going, not just in health-food stores. But it does raise the issue of whether there will be places where people can buy meat and eggs at a lower price.

“There is always an argument for cheap food,” Durfee said. “But there are also hidden costs in cheap food. One of those costs may be the way chickens that supply cheap eggs are treated. It’s not an easy question.”

Others who support the measure acknowledge that it raises questions, especially the tension between more humane practices and the lower prices and greater availability of food that high-volume factory farming allows.

It is an open question, for example, whether a shift to cage-free eggs by mass-market providers and retailers would bring down the cost of those eggs – and how that might affect the smaller farms that now produce cage-free eggs.


‘A much larger conversation’
Among local farmers, many see the ballot question as just one component of complex issues affecting the overall system of growing and selling food.

“I support this measure and its goal, but it is only one aspect of a much larger conversation and educational process we need to have about our entire food system,” said Sean Stanton, who operates Blue Hill Farm/North Plain Farm in Great Barrington.

Stanton’s farm sells beef, pork, eggs, milk and produce at the Great Barrington farmers market and also to restaurants in Berkshire County and the New York City area. He said he is committed to the humane treatment of animals at his farm. But he added that that is an easier standard to meet because he also has a targeted market that is more oriented to quality and other considerations than to price.

Stanton said he believes the overall food system is moving toward more humane treatment of animals, but progress toward this goal is slow.

“While I think this ballot measure is helpful, I think consumer choices are what will ultimately make the difference,” he said. “There’s a huge disconnect and a lot of misinformation about food. We don’t do a good job of educating people about how food is produced, and things like the way animals are treated. I think if people know more about what goes on, they’d make different choices.”

He said this extends to all aspects of the food system, including prices.

“In the U.S. we spend the lowest prices on food in relation to income than almost any other country,” he said. “Farming is a very difficult business. I don’t think food should be the thing we spend the least amount of money on.”

Rather, he said, prices should reflect the true cost of producing healthy food that is more environmentally sustainable -- and humane.

He acknowledged that it is not an easy choice.
“If food prices seem too high for many people, that has more to do with the fact that wages are too low,” he said. “That’s a much larger conversation.”

In terms of the issue of humane treatment, he added, unless one is a strict vegetarian, there are certain realities people have to accept regarding the fate of farm animals.

“Practical and humane don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand,” he said. “The real question is finding the right balance between the humanity of producing food to meet the needs of society while also treating animals with respect and decency.”