Branches accept animal welfare law changes

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BOSTON (State House Press Service) – A last-minute legislative deal to rewrite key sections of a voter-approved animal welfare law landed on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk on Monday, less than two weeks before new regulations are expected to begin that could impact the availability of eggs and pork in Massachusetts.

Following the announcement of House and Senate negotiators a agreement on Sunday evening, Monday agencies quickly agreed on an invoice (S 2603) updating housing standards for laying hens and delaying the start of a ban on the sale of pork products from cruelly confined animals by seven and a half months.

The bill revises a law passed by voters by ballot in 2016 just weeks before enforcement began, drawing heavy criticism from the Humane Farming Association, whose executive director has accused other rights groups animals that support the measure being “co-opted” by commercial interests.

Lawmakers said they believe the bill will help avoid shortages of available eggs and pork products that could stem from the new law, even as senators drew a line in the sand on the enforcement of cruelty standards to protect pigs.

“The outcome without this bill for Massachusetts has been crystal clear the entire time: no eggs, or ridiculously expensive eggs,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, a Democrat from Needham who co-chairs the environment committee, Natural Resources and Agriculture and was one of three senators who crafted the compromise with the House. “Today we are solving a real chicken and egg problem, and we have done so through an open, accessible and transparent process without frustrating the will of voters.”

Rep. Carolyn Dykema, the House’s lead negotiator on the six-member conference committee that produced the deal after negotiations closed, said failure to implement the changes would have created “impacts potentially dramatic on the availability of essential foods”.

“Egg farmers have told us that egg prices could skyrocket,” Dykema said in a statement. “Local businesses were told that only 10% of their pork needs would be met and the products available would likely carry premium price tags.

The legislation also transfers much of the regulatory responsibility from the attorney general’s office to the state Department of Agricultural Resources. Healey’s office would retain its existing enforcement authority.

The National Department of Agriculture has been headed since 2015 by Commissioner John Lebeaux. Certified Horticulturist, Lebeaux’s official his biography describes him as “the grandson of a farmer and son of a nursery owner” who was formerly president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association.

In 2016, voters approved an election question implementing new standards for the treatment of farm animals and the products they produce.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2022, prohibits all Massachusetts farm owners from cruelly confining any animal. It also prohibits the sale of shell eggs and pork and veal from animals kept in violation of these standards, including products made in other states.

Like originally approved by voters, the law defines cruel confinement as any enclosure that prevents “lying down, rising, fully extending the animal’s limbs, or turning over freely.” For laying hens, this meant that each bird had to be able to spread both wings without touching the side of a pen and have access to at least 1.5 square feet of “usable floor space” per hen.

Industry representatives and some animal rights groups say that in the five years since the election issue won with more than 77% of the vote, practices on the ground have changed considerably. Many egg producers now use aviary systems, which allow hens access to more vertical space, with a standard of one square foot of floor space per animal.

Under the compromise legislation, farmers could house hens with just one square foot of floor space per bird if placed in “multi-tiered aviaries, partial slatted cageless housing systems or any another non-cage housing system that provides hens with unrestricted access to vertical space.” Single-tier pens should still provide 1.5 square feet per hen.

“The bill requires that enrichments be included in these vertical aviaries that allow hens to display natural behaviors, including features such as perches, scratching areas, nesting boxes and dust bathing areas” said Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate’s chief negotiator on the bill. “In other words, this standard is considered humane or even more humane than the standard included in the 2016 ballot question.”

Over the past seven months, a coalition of opponents of ballot issues, including the New England Brown Egg Council and the Humane Society of the United States, have come together to pressure lawmakers to change the law. , which they believe would maintain animal welfare while reflecting the widespread adoption of aviary systems on the production side.

In a joint statement, the Humane Society, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Rescue League of Boston and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hailed the bill’s success.

“With the passage of S. 2603, the Massachusetts Legislature strengthened the existing law, passed on ballot as Question 3 in 2016, to now mandate cage-free housing with critical bird behavioral enrichments, such as nest boxes, roosts and dust-bathing and scratching areas,” the groups said. “Importantly, the Legislature also extended the application of Question 3 protections to hens raised for liquid eggs – a decision that will protect at least two million additional hens each year.”

But support for the change is not unanimous among animal rights groups. Bradley Miller, executive director of the Humane Farming Association, called the legislation “a devastating setback for farm animal protections and a major betrayal of Massachusetts voters.”

Miller said in an interview that aviary systems have been around for “decades” and that reducing the standard from 1.5 square feet per bird to one square foot per hen will allow large manufacturers to confine more animals to cages. tight spaces, although birds are able to climb higher platforms.

“The egg industry and a few co-opted animal groups mistakenly describe this cruel reduction in space to a mere square foot per hen as an improvement to Question 3,” he said, referring to the 2016 ballot question. “In effect, this is an outright repeal and replacement of the central and most important anti-animal cruelty provision in Question 3.”

Miller said he hoped the people of Massachusetts would urge Baker to veto the bill. The Humane Farming Association, which sued Attorney General Maura Healey in January for delaying the development of regulations, “is actively exploring a subsequent ballot measure to clarify that these animals need more space and that these bills harsh rules on factory farming must be repealed,” Miller added.

For pork products, the legislation does not include any major reforms or changed definitions and instead launches the effective date of the voter-approved ban seven and a half months later.

Businesses could continue to sell pork from confined pigs in a way voters deemed cruel until August 15, 2022 under the bill, after which all pork products in the Bay State should come from humanely housed animals.

Neither the original legislation that went through the committee process nor the Senate bill approved in June included changes to the timeline for the ban on certain pork products. The House Ways and Means Committee added language delaying the start date from Jan. 1, 2022 to Jan. 1, 2023 before the full House approves its version in October.

Lewis, who on Monday called his House counterpart Dykema a “tough negotiator,” said the trio of senators “reluctantly agreed” to a seven-and-a-half-month delay.

“I want the hog industry to know in no uncertain terms that there will be no further extensions for them in Massachusetts,” the Winchester Democrat said, addressing the Senate from a distance. “They must comply with Massachusetts law, overwhelmingly approved by our voters in 2016, if they wish to continue selling their products to our consumers.”

Dykema, a Democrat from Holliston, did not take as strong a stance on the Aug. 15 deadline as Lewis did, leaving room in her statement for lawmakers to revisit the issue in the future.

“The extension of the implementation deadline for pork products included in the final bill and approved by all participants was not taken lightly,” she said. “There was a reason why the issue of the 2016 ballot required a two-year transition from the promulgation of the regulations to the date of implementation. Significant infrastructure upgrades are required to comply with this new law , changes made even more difficult with materials at COVID-19.With this bill, we will ensure a smooth transition to the new standards of humane animal care that we all support.

“House delegates fully support the conference report,” Dykema added. “Since future legislatures cannot be bound by our actions, any future proposals that may be made would be assessed, as they always are, on substance and with a full understanding of the context and potential impacts.”

Miller, who criticized the addition of a change to the deadline for products from cruelly confined pigs as “all done in the dark”, said he expects industry interests push for another delay as we approach August.

“This so-called compromise of delaying enactment for seven and a half months – it’s a farce,” he said. “That will be changed once the Legislature returns to session. You can count on the pork industry to look to push that date back even further.”

Baker did not say whether he plans to sign the bill into law, but he urged lawmakers to come to a consensus and quickly send him a proposal with the specter of a supply-side shake-up looming.

Beacon Hill has repeatedly intervened to change laws that voters approved at the ballot box. In 2016, the Legislative Assembly voted to delay the implementation of several sections of the law legalizing recreational marijuana in order to consider changes to the measure supported by voters.

A year after it was made available, lawmakers suspended a charitable donation tax deduction that voters approved in a 2000 ballot. Since then, Democratic leaders have resisted Baker’s calls to revive the measure.

Written by Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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