Massachusetts is delaying implementation of new animal welfare standards until next summer while reworking and expanding the requirements for laying hens. 

The standards, which were to take effect in January, were the result of a ballot initiative approved in 2016. Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday signed into law a measure that delays implementation until Aug. 15 and modified the standards for hens to take into account the aviary systems that are now commonly used in egg operations. The compromise bill also expands the new rules for hens whose eggs are processed into liquid products. 

In addition, the new law puts the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in charge of writing regulations for the law in consultation with the state’s attorney general. The attorney general was originally given authority over the law. The ag department will have six months to issue the regulations. 

“Question 3, like Prop. 12, lacks any scientific, technical or agricultural basis and only will inflict economic harm on America’s pork producers and even jeopardize the well-being of their animals,” said Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producers Council.

“We’re grateful the legislature listened to our concerns and delayed implementation of Question 3 so that at least producers in and outside the state can have more time to consider their options and continue to supply pork to Bay Staters.”

Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, which represents meat processors, said the state ag department should "consider changes to provisions that are unworkable or overly burdensome.”

The ballot initiative defined adequate cage space for hens as 1.5 square feet per bird. The new law reduces the minimum requirement for hens in aviary systems to one square foot per bird. That's the same requirement set by all other states that are mandating cage-free eggs, said Bill Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council.

The new law "mandates the same 'hen enhancements'—nesting space, perches, provisions for dust bathing and scratching—as contained in the other states’ laws and in the United Egg Producers 2017 Guidelines for Cage Free Housing, which has become the standard," Bell said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

The Humane Society of the United States, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Animal Rescue League of Boston said in a joint statement that they were pleased to see the changes in rules for laying hens.

"With passage of S. 2603, the Massachusetts legislature strengthened the existing law, passed at the ballot as Question 3 in 2016, to now mandate cage-free housing with critical behavioral enrichments for the birds, such as nest boxes, perches, and dust-bathing and scratching areas. Importantly, the legislature also expanded application of Question 3’s protections to hens raised for liquid eggs - a move that will protect at least two million more hens each year," the groups said.

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