Farmers: Animal welfare ballot initiative would mean higher prices

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STATE HOUSE — The ballot initiative seeking to eliminate the “extreme confinement” and “lifelong immobilization” of farm animals is unnecessary and would lead to a sharp rise in food prices for Massachusetts residents, the head of a state farmers association said.

“The people of Massachusetts have to understand that this is not about animal welfare, it’s about the elimination of their right to eat meat and making their meat so expensive or animal products so expensive and trying to force them to eat differently,” Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said.

“And that’s a choice the people should be making, not some environmental group from Washington, D.C.,” he added, referring to the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society was one of a half-dozen national, state and local animal welfare groups that gathered Wednesday outside the State House under the name “Citizens for Farm Animal Protection” to rally in support of an initiative petition that supporters say would ensure that veal calves, breeding sows and egg-laying hens “will not spend their lives in cages barely larger than their bodies.”

But Bonanno said the coalition’s efforts to ban veal and pig gestation crates are moot. Those practices haven’t been used in Massachusetts in decades, he said. And of the state’s 150,000 egg-laying chickens, just 3,000 are cooped in constrictive battery cages.

Many farmers don’t use the practices that animal welfare advocates on Wednesday likened to torture, Bonanno said, because stress causes chickens to stop laying eggs and stops pigs and cows from gaining weight.

“The difference with this ballot question is that it doesn’t just ban practices that could exist in Massachusetts, it prevents any pork, any veal and any eggs from other states that use those practices from coming into the state,” Bonanno said.

And that would mean far higher prices at the grocery store, according to Bonanno. Chickens lay roughly one egg a day and the average person eats one egg a day, he said. With only 150,000 chickens laying eggs for the 6 million residents of Massachusetts, 5.85 million eggs must be brought into the state each day, and restricting those imports to only cage-free eggs would severely decrease the available supply of eggs and drive prices up, Bonanno said.

“They don’t care about the impact on the cost of food for the people of Massachusetts and my comment to them is that people can vote with their pocketbooks. One of the great things about agriculture in Massachusetts and what’s available in Massachusetts is that there are a lot of different options,” he said. “If the public said, ‘We’re willing to pay four times, five times the cost of eggs because we don’t like the way they’re produced,’ that would send a message to the top producers. But the vast majority of people do not want the cost of their food to double, triple or quadruple.”

Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said during Wednesday’s rally that more than 100 food retailers — including Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart — have already indicated they will work with their food suppliers to eliminate food from animals that were severely confined from their supply chains.

“What this ballot measure is doing is it’s moving us forward when the corporate sector has already established its verdict on the issue, that animals built to move should be allowed to move and we should adhere to the most basic animal welfare sensibilities when it comes to treating farm animals in our food production system,” he said.

Bonanno said the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation plans to organize in opposition to the Citizens for Farm Animal Protection initiative, if it eventually makes it onto the 2016 ballot.

If the attorney general certifies the question and the Legislature declines to take it up as a bill, the coalition will have to collect at least 90,000 signatures in order to qualify for the 2016 statewide ballot.

Copyright State House News Service