The Department of Agriculture fingered California’s regulations for generating uncertainty that widened the price gap between eggs sold in Southern California and New York to more than $1 per dozen. Prices for a dozen Grade A large eggs in California have since fallen to $1.94 after approaching $6 per dozen in the wake of the avian flu outbreak in 2015. Supporters of cage requirements have also pointed to a University of California-Riverside study that concluded producing cage-free eggs would cost less than a penny more per egg.
Chad Gregory, the president of industry group United Egg Producers, said farms that sell into Massachusetts could feel the pinch if the ballot proposal passes. “Because Massachusetts imports 99 percent of its eggs from other states, there is no question that this proposal, if passed, could have far-reaching, negative consequences for residents in the state who purchase and consume eggs,” Gregory said.
Still, it’s not clear whether the Massachusetts law would be enforceable, or even legal—the egg industry contends the California law conflicts with the Constitution’s commerce clause. A federal court dismissed a challenge brought by six states in 2014, saying no party had standing, but other egg-producing states are appealing the ruling on the grounds that laws in one state cannot induce a regulatory effect on the same industry in other states or place a burden on interstate commerce.
Some animal rights activists also say California law isn’t properly implementing its law because the proposal left both enforcement and measurements for animal confinement ambiguous. A recent report by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere about a facility owned by JS West, a large California egg producer, found hens tightly packed, some with “growths and abscesses” and others dead and decomposing on the floor.
The Massachusetts initiative, however, improves upon the California design, said Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere. It specifies dimensions for hen, veal calf, and pig living spaces while also making the attorney general responsible for issuing and enforcing regulations. Private citizens would be able to file complaints and the attorney general could hit producers with a $1,000 fine per violation. But verifying that producers across state lines are following the rules also presents its challenges, Hsiung said, adding that private-citizen whistleblower cases are tough to litigate—and that it would be difficult for such citizens to gain access to sites to allege wrongdoing in the first place.
Proponents are confident. The law would require retailers get “the equivalent of an affidavit from a supplier,” Shapiro, of the Humane Society, said. Nancy Perry, the senior vice president of government relations with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, compared the enforcement regime to other consumer-protection standards in which the attorney general can stand up to wrongdoing by actors in other states. Advocates also believe producers are running out of reasons to maintain battery cages, gestation stalls, and veal crates because the private sector is moving away from them, too. Big purchasers such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Denny’s, Burger King, Sodexo, and Aramark have committed to going cage-free, subsequently driving producers to alter their practices. Legislation to outlaw gestation stalls in nine states has also pushed producers like Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, to eschew the pens.
“I think especially when you’re dealing with major producers I can’t really see folks taking the risk. The industry is definitely moving on in terms of all the major corporate announcements,” said Chris Green, the executive director of the animal law and policy program at Harvard Law School. But if the Massachusetts ballot initiative is taken up, it’ll be the voters who decide.