Opposition Raised to Animal Cruelty Ballot Question

The Recorder, September 30, 2016, by Richie Davis

Question 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot, which would dramatically curtail the Diemand Farm’s 80-year-old egg-producing operation in Wendell, has been largely a one-sided battle, until now.

With about five weeks until Election Day, a “Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice” has announced its formation to respond to a measure it contends would drive up food prices in the name of preventing “cruelty to farm animals.”

Proponents of the measure, which would “prohibit any farm owner or operator from knowingly confining any egg-laying hen in a way that prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely,” have raised $1.7 million, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Other than the “Citizens for Farm Animal Protection” organization, which has received more than $1.5 million from Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Humane Society of the United States, the state campaign finance office lists no other committee working on the ballot question.

“We’ve been doing other stuff” around the farm,” said Anne Diemand Bucci, co-owner of the Diemand Farm, which may be the only commercial egg producer in the state and therefore the only one likely to feel the effects of the referendum. After being forced to downsize the farm’s egg-producing operation from 12,000 to 3,000 laying birds to comply with burdensome federal record-keeping requirements in 2012, she added, they and supporters in the state’s farming community have faced ongoing challenges year after year like Question 3.

Bucci said her farm has not yet contributed to the opposition group, and a spokesman for the organization declined to say how much of a budget it is working with.

Question 3 proponents say it would establish “modest standards,” taking effect in 2022, “to ensure that substandard, inhumane, and unsafe products from these cruel confinement systems aren’t sold in our Commonwealth,” yet Bucci said the group’s description of hens “packed five or more to a cage” distorts the Wendell farm’s practice of putting one hen in an 12-by-18-inch cage that keeps the birds clean, well-fed and watered and free from disease, with enough space to stretch and stand, sit and lie down.

The new committee, which has a website, consists of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, New England Brown Egg Council, Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, National Association of Egg Farmers, National Pork Producers Council, Protect the Harvest and Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

Protect the Harvest is a Midwest-based group that aims to “protect our freedoms and way of life by creating lasting legal safeguards for farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, and animal owners” and “respond to the activities of radical groups by opposing their efforts to pass laws or enact regulations that would restrict our rights, limit our freedoms, and hinder our access to safe, affordable food.”

Brad Mitchell of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation said the organization is concerned about the ballot question’s impact on people’s perception of farming conditions in the state, where the “cruel confinement” practices of laying hens, veal calves and pigs that would be banned are not present.

Citizens Against Food Tax points to a Cornell University estimate, based on the effects of a Humane Society-backed initiative in California that took effect last year and is being appealed in federal court, that Massachusetts citizens would pay $249 million in higher food prices the first year alone if Question 3 passes. California wholesale eggs are 89 percent higher than those for the rest of the nation in 2016, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the group says.

The Humane Society has estimated that consumers would pay only about $1 more per month if the new law takes effect.

“We have families here and folks who are making tradeoffs … ‘Do I pay my rent, do I feed my children, do I keep the lights on?’” said group spokeswoman Diane Sullivan, who has been a Medford advocate for low-income individuals and families for the past 14 years. “The last thing they need is a regressive food tax. This is essentially a DC lobbyist group trying to further their national agenda and using Massachusetts voters as a pawn in their end game. When I’ve been in positions where my SNAP benefits have run out, I’ve been able to buy a dozen eggs and supply my children with at least a source of protein. They want to take those affordable options away from the 90 percent of us who buy those conventional eggs.”