Baker signs tweaked voter-approved chicken cage law

Chickens stand in battery cages at a farm near Stuart, Iowa. State lawmakers have made changes to Question 3, approved by voters in 2016, and Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on them Wednesday. The law, which bans the sale of eggs and meat from cage-confined animals, takes effect in January.

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday signed a 2016 voter-approved law tweaked by lawmakers that requires larger enclosures for egg-laying chickens.

“I signed the egg bill. I got cracking. We unscrambled all of the information in it, and it’s egg-cellent that it’s signed,” Baker said after a State House event.

Lawmakers approved changes to the 2016 voter-approved law requiring larger enclosures for egg-laying chickens in a move aimed at averting egg shortages and a spike in prices when the law goes into effect next month.

The referendum, which banned shelled eggs, veal and other meat produced by cage-confined farm animals, was approved by more than 77% of voters. But egg producers and food industry officials said its requirement of at least 1.5 square feet per bird for large “aviary systems” — were stricter than what other states require and would lead to egg shortages and higher retail prices.

Lawmakerson Monday approved a compromise bill reducing the size of the enclosures to 1 foot per bird before sending it to Baker’s desk.

“They’ve averted a very chaotic situation,” said William Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council, which supports the changes. “We had become an outlier and that would have meant higher costs and shortages.”

He said many suppliers had placed orders for bulk egg deliveries anticipating that lawmakers would update the law before it went into effect. He said there should be an ample supply of “legal” eggs in Massachusetts if Baker signs the law.

“The eggs have been produced but they couldn’t go into the stores until we knew that they were going to be legal,” Bell said.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, one of six lawmakers who negotiated the final bill, said the compromise measure will “preserve animal welfare while also meeting the needs of the consumers.”

“I would have preferred not to be sending it to the governor’s desk at the 11th hour, but it’s taken a lot of work to get it there,” he said. “It was important to get the details right, and I think we have been able to accomplish that.”

Extension for pork

The latest version of the bill will delay a ban on the sale of pork products from “cruelly confined” pigs by seven and a half months. The pork industry pushed for a year-long delay but lawmakers who negotiated the final version of the bill agreed to a shorter delay.

Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, who was also on the panel that negotiated the final bill, said Monday that he “reluctantly” agreed to the delay but warned the pork industry that it won’t be getting any more extensions from complying.

“They must come into compliance with Massachusetts law, overwhelmingly approved by our voters back in 2016, if they wish to continue selling their products to our consumers,” he said in remarks from the Senate floor.

Most animal welfare groups are on board with the update, which includes enhancements to improve the welfare of egg-laying hens used to supply retail markets.

The 1.5-square-foot dimensions would still be required for egg-producing farms that only use cages. But the limit would be reduced for cage-free aviary systems, which allow birds to move around.

A poll conducted by the Humane Society earlier this year found at least 68% of Massachusetts voters surveyed supported changes to the law.

Massachusetts isn’t home to many large-scale egg and pork-producing farms, but the animal welfare law applies to egg, pork and veal products sent to the state.

Rotten eggs

Some groups, such as the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, have pushed the state to implement “Question 3” as approved. They point out that some egg-producing farms have already made costly modifications to comply with the law.

A California-based animal welfare group filed a lawsuit against the state last year to force implementation of the 2016 law as approved by voters, saying the changes will mean “cruel” conditions for birds that supply the state’s eggs.

The Humane Farming Association has also suggested that claims by the industry about looming egg shortages and higher prices from not updating the 2016 law were exaggerated.

Bradley Miller, the HFA’s national director, criticized the compromise legislation rolled out by lawmakers on Sunday as a “rotten egg bill” that defies the will of Massachusetts voters. He said it sets back hard-fought animal cruelty protections.

“This is a devastating setback to farm animal protection and a major betrayal to Massachusetts voters who approved the law,” he said. “It’s an outright repeal and replacement of Question 3’s central and most important anti-cruelty provision, that would have provided at least 1.5 square feet of floor space per hen.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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