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The Massachusetts Cage-Free Egg Initiative Legal Battle

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Man holding an egg (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

I previously wrote a post about the national trend towards cage-free eggs and the related Massachusetts ballot initiative. According to the proposed ballot item, all eggs sold in Massachusetts would have to come from chickens with 1.5 feet of living space, functionally making all eggs in the state cage-free and affecting farmers nationwide. It would also require all veal and pork produced and sold in the state come from animals able to extend their limbs and turn around in the spaces where they are held. The proposal is an attempt to end what the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) calls “extreme confinement.”

Last year, supporters of the initiative collected 133,000 signatures supporting the ballot item and submitted it to the Massachusetts Secretary of State for certification. In May, the proposal was put before the State legislature, which chose not to enact the initiative. The next step for the proposal’s supporters is to get the item on the November ballot (additional signatures are needed by July to do so) and put it to a vote by Massachusetts citizens. The Massachusetts Attorney General has approved the language of the ballot item.

However, in April a lawsuit filed by a poverty advocate and a farmer who sells eggs in Massachusetts asked the Court to declare the wording of the proposed ballot item violated the State Constitution. The Massachusetts Constitution limits ballot items to subjects “which are related or which are mutually dependent.” According to the Boston Globe, the issue is that the ballot item is in effect asking voters to take a stand on two separate and unrelated issues: whether certain farming practices should be banned in Massachusetts, and whether certain types of products should be banned from being sold there. Opponents of the proposed ballot item are concerned about the inevitable rise in prices of cage-free eggs and meats.

The lawsuit is funded by a large agriculture political action group called Protect the Harvest Fund and has pitted farmers against animal rights activists. The week of the hearing, a video taken at New England’s largest egg-producing farm was released, showing practices HSUS says are detrimental to both animals and public health.

Interestingly, recent articles say Massachusetts currently has only one farm using battery cages for egg-laying chickens, and no farms in the state using small cages for pigs and calves. If the question makes the ballot and voters vote in favor of it in November, egg producers outside the state will be hit the hardest.

The State Supreme Court heard the case on June 8 and if the court finds the ballot item unconstitutional, it will not be on the November ballot. I will keep an eye on this story and share the outcome in a future post. (Please note no bad chicken puns were used in the writing of this post; you’re welcome!)

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