BOSTON – A voter-approved law requiring larger enclosures for egg-laying chickens could lead to shortages and higher prices when the new rules take effect in two years, a concern that has prompted lawmakers to revisit the standards.
A proposal filed by Rep. Dan Cahill, D-Lynn, backed by the Humane Society of the United States and the New England Brown Egg Council, would reduce the confinement requirements from the voter approved 1.5 square-feet per bird to only 1 square foot.
But the proposal also adds "enhancements" aimed at improving the welfare of egg-laying hens that supply the state's retail market.
Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, said that despite reducing the minimum size of the enclosures, the changes will strengthen – not weaken – the law. They improve conditions for egg-laying hens, he said, by adding new requirements that were not included in the ballot question three years ago.
"It would include mandates for perching, scratching and dust bathing, all of which are critical behaviors for the welfare of hens," he said. "It would be a vast improvement."
Question 3, which bans shelled eggs, veal and other meat produced by cage-confined farm animals, was approved by more than 77 percent of voters in 2016.
Animal welfare groups say the resounding ballot box victory was a mandate to further strengthen the law.
Legislative leaders drew criticism earlier this year for tacking a similar measure to amend the 2016 law onto the $43 billion state budget during deliberations. The provision was ultimately dropped.
William Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council, said his group worked with the Humane Society to come up with the proposed new standards.
He said the 1 foot per bird standard in larger "aviary systems" has been adopted by the United Egg Producers and incorporated into new laws in California, Rhode Island, Oregon and Washington that restrict cage confinement.
"Massachusetts has become an outlier," he said. "The industry is converting to cage-free, but if the state is requiring 50% more floor space per bird, nobody is going to be in a hurry to supply it."
Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said his group opposes the changes and thinks advocates should honor the will of the voters.
"The voters have spoken but now the Humane Society wants to go back on that," he said. "We opposed the ballot question but believe that the will of the voters should be respected."
He said many farmers who support the state's wholesale egg market have "put significant money" into new aviary systems to comply with the 2016 law.
Backers of the changes say they need to get approval before Attorney General Maura Healey's office begins writing regulations for the new law next year.
Nationwide the Humane Society estimates 90 percent of egg-laying chickens -- about 300 million birds -- are kept in wire battery cages so restrictive they cannot extend their wings.
Many companies, including McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell and Target, have pledged to purchase all of their eggs from cage-free facilities within the next decade.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.