WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2016 - A ballot initiative in Massachusetts is designed to address animal confinement in the state, but a consumer advocate is worried about what it could do to a shopper’s pocketbook.

Massachusetts Question 3 would prohibit the use of a number of animal agriculture confinement practices, but would also bar the sale of goods in Massachusetts produced through those same methods in other states. While the initiative has the attention of a number of national players for the potential precedent it could set, its impact on actual production in the state would be minimal at best: only one facility in Massachusetts would have to alter its housing.

It’s that minimal impact that has Diane Sullivan scratching her head. Sullivan has been involved in anti-poverty work for about 14 years, and now she’s the campaign manager for Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice, a group fighting Question 3. She says that, if approved, the initiative would amount to a $250 million food tax in the state because of increased production costs brought about by the requirement that only cage-free eggs and pork can be sold. Sullivan says the legislation – backed by the Humane Society of the United States and a host of other groups – might not be getting an adequate level of scrutiny from the people it could affect the most. 

“I want the people of Massachusetts to, if they can’t understand, to at least question why (HSUS is) here,” she told Agri-Pulse. “If HSUS was so concerned about one farm we have here in operation, they probably could have spent 20 percent of the budget that they’re spending on ‘Yes on 3’ to retrofit those cages in that farm.”

“My years of work in policy have shown me that when somebody starts to solve for a problem that does not exist, a couple of things are going to happen: that person or that entity has something to gain, whether it’s political or financial; and subsequently, poor people are going to suffer the consequences.”

Sullivan says what Question 3 would do to food costs in the state amounts to a “social injustice” brought about by the wealthier citizens of Massachusetts.

In May, a Cornell study found that a similar law in California cost citizens there an average or $14 more per year on eggs, or about $70 for a family of five.

“For a lot of us, that isn’t a lot of money, but for some, that’s a heating bill,” Brad Mitchell, with the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, told Agri-Pulse. 

Aside from concerns about what the bill could cost consumers, it remains to be seen how the measure could hit food retailers. Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association (MFA), said if approved, Question 3 wouldn’t go into effect until 2022, and some specifics are still up to rulemaking at the state’s Attorney General’s office. 

“This type of thing, all it does is introduce bureaucracy at the retail end for us,” Houghton said in an interview. “That’s what we want to minimize.”

He said there’s concern that documentation of cage-free production could be required at individual stores rather than at a company’s corporate headquarters, something he said MFA would push against during rulemaking. However, MFA is not taking a stance on Question 3. 

While the measure is widely expected to pass (polling averages show about 67 percent of citizens are in support), opponents are putting up an admittedly outgunned battle. According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance, the Citizens for Farm Animal Protection – a group that includes a number of the nation’s largest animal welfare organizations – has raised more than $1.7 million to support the initiative, compared to just $75,100 by the Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice.

Opposition in the ag community is there, Mitchell said, but many producers have to be careful with how vocal they choose to be. A lot of the production in the state is sold directly to consumers, meaning many producers don’t want to risk the consumer relationship consequences and lost sales that could come from vocal opposition to Question 3. 

And that’s where Sullivan comes in. Aside from ag production ramifications to Question 3, she says there’s also an ethical dilemma at play here. She has spent time advocating for affordable housing in the state, and she said the two biggest affordable housing programs in the state amount to less than $150 million per year. When juxtaposed with the potential $250 million increase in food costs, she says voters in the state have a choice to make. 

“Are Massachusetts consumers prepared to remove the most affordable and accessible animal protein from our diets,” Sullivan said, “and do that while sending $250 million to out of state producers to subsidize housing for their livestock?”

Issues to watch in other states

  • A number of localities will cast votes on ag issues across the country next week, and marijuana leads the way with nine pending decisions. Voters in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota will decide on expanded access to medical marijuana, and residents of Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are considering legalization. The language in each of the bills differs, although most cap production to amounts that may hinder an agricultural producer from switching over to marijuana cultivation. 

  • Oklahoma voters will consider State Question 777, a so-called “right to farm” addition to the state’s constitution. The language, if approved, would protect “the right of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to engage in farming and ranching practices,” making those practices “forever guaranteed.” Similar measures were approved in Missouri and North Dakota. According to Oklahoma-based SoonerPoll, support for the measure has slipped by about 16 points since July, now running at just 37 percent. However, almost 14 percent of voters still consider themselves undecided.
  • Similar to Oklahoma’s right to farm vote, Indiana and Kansas will be considering right to hunt and fish amendments to their respective constitutions. Comparable language is already on the books in 20 states, and California’s constitution addresses the right to fish.
  • Spending by the soda and beverage industries has topped $25 million to try and block penny-per-ounce soda taxes in four cities: San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado. The spending is especially prevalent in San Francisco, where a committee backed by the American Beverage Association has spent more than $20 million in that city alone. A similar measure passed in June in Philadelphia.

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