BOSTON -- Farmers and veterinarians seeking better living conditions for the creatures raised for eggs, pork and veal encountered a skeptical committee chairwoman yesterday, who questioned whether new requirements are necessary in Massachusetts.
“We don’t have factory farms in Massachusetts,” Sen. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, told supporters of anti-constrictive caging legislation. Gobi said, “Massachusetts farmers are very ethical and we do not use gestation crates in Massachusetts.”
The Legislature is not the only route for the bill, which was drafted as a citizens petition last year and receiving 95,817 certified signatures -- more than any of this session’s other citizen ballot petitions. If lawmakers do not do what supporters want, they would need to collect 16,188 more signatures from around the state to put the matter before voters in November.
The proposal would ban Bay State farmers from keeping hens, pigs or veal calves in a way that prevents them from turning around, lying down or fully extending their limbs. The proposal would also prevent businesses from selling raw pork, veal and whole eggs when the business operator “knows or should know” the animal products were produced in that prohibited manner, a measure that could extend the reach of the legislation beyond Massachusetts’s borders.
“No animal should spend their entire life in distress without the basic freedoms to stand up, sit down and turn around,” Mary Nee, president of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, told the Agriculture committee on Thursday.
“I could not imagine immobilizing these active, social animals in tiny cages for their entire lives,” said Charles Currie, who raises laying hens, pigs, sheep and other animals on Freedom Food Farm in Raynham. “I am not alone. Farmers across Massachusetts respect their animals’ basic needs to move.”
Gobi and her co-chair, Rep. Paul Schmid, a Westport Democrat, both said after the hearing they favor legislation filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik that would establish a commission overseeing farm animal standards in Massachusetts. Schmid has a beef farm with about 50 head of cattle where he said the animals are “grass-fed, pasture-based, organic” without antibiotics or growth hormones.
Schmid said he “would have to think about” how he would vote on the measure should it come to the ballot, and Gobi said she has constitutional concerns about the restrictions on meat and eggs raised out of state.
“Now we’re treading on interstate commerce and there are some constitutional issues that I think are rather large and could be a hurdle to get over,” Gobi said. She said a commission could regulate a host of animal welfare issues and not restrict itself to the amount of space granted to pigs, calves and hens.
Joann Lindenmayer, a veterinarian testifying on behalf of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, said crowded conditions cause animals distress and contribute to the spread of disease. She said a recent outbreak of avian influenza resulted in the loss of 49.7 million birds in 15 midwestern states.
Much of the testimony focused on egg-laying hens.
Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the News Service six or more hens are “crammed” into wire cages about the size of a file cabinet drawer stacked on top of one another so that they are defecating on top of one another. She said carcasses of dead hens go overlooked “because the conditions are so packed.”
Freund said a study has suggested producing cage-free pork would cost 11 percent less and she said the veal industry association has already said veal crates are “inhumane.”
Gobi and Freund differed over the conditions of many agricultural animals in Massachusetts.
“We’ve already determined that Massachusetts does not have gestation crates,” Gobi said. “Are you actively going to the states that have it, where there is a problem? We don’t have a problem here.”
The ASPCA defines gestation crates as small enclosures where sows are penned in until a few days before giving birth.
A former upstate New York farmer, Freund said 10 states have enacted “some kind of confinement ban,” and said, “In Massachusetts, I think there’s a really great tradition of responsible farming, but there are still thousands of animals that are living in confinement.”
“There are no farms using veal crates or gestation crates in the Commonwealth. There is one remaining, small battery-cage operation. This is a family operation with less than 3,000 birds,” the Massachusetts Farm Bureau said in written testimony, calling the bill “unnecessary.”
William Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council, said the standard of 1.5 square-feet of usable floor space per chicken required by the bill is stricter than the 1 square-foot per chicken standard agreed to by the Humane Society of the United States and others for inclusion in federal legislation.
Bell, who represents egg producers, said the 1.5 square-foot standard is a “radical departure” from the earlier agreement.
“There’s no welfare in one square-foot,” Freund told the News Service.
There are about 288 million laying hens in the country and 24 million cage-free laying hens, according to Augustine, who said about 3 million laying hens would be required to satisfy the Bay State’s consumption. Augustine didn’t study the impact on pork or veal prices, he told the News Service. Bell said there are 300,000 laying hens in Massachusetts.
In written testimony, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau claimed the initiative would raise a family of five’s pork expenditures by $154 per year.
Bell prefers consumer-driven changes to egg production, something that both sides agree is happening as McDonalds, Walmart and other major companies have responded to consumer demand with egg policies to phase out the use of cages.