Massachusetts Ballot question 3, op-ed

My family and I raise meat for sale in Massachusetts, and our customers are increasingly asking us for our thoughts about Massachusetts Ballot question 3. A yes vote would prohibit any confinement of pigs, calves, and hens that prevent them from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs, or turning around freely. If passed, the new law will take effect January 1, 2022.

We fully support the passage of this law, and we thought it would be useful to tell voters why and to share what we think the longer-term consequences of a law like this might be.

We are part of a US farm Industry that has achieved some of the highest levels of meat production productivity in the world. Meat production is one area where the US continues to be an exporter in the global marketplace, and this is a direct result of US farmer ingenuity and hard work. There are many in the meat industry who argue that high production productivity was and is needed to help feed a growing world population and that greater efficiency can lower meat prices to make critical proteins available to more people. It is a very valid point and something we need to keep in mind with any proposed regulations.

However, some of us have felt for some time that the meat Industry needs a more balanced scorecard than just a laser-like focus on production efficiency. Many of us increasingly feel a responsibility to consider the humane treatment of animals, the long-term sustainability of our practices, the impact on the environment, and the safety and healthiness of the products we produce.

Animal confinement is a direct by-product of the push for production efficiency. Farrowing crates are common in the pork industry to prevent a sow from rolling on and crushing piglets, and to protect workers and other pigs from certain sows exhibiting aggressive behavior during or after giving birth. However, when farrowing cages are used there is a tradeoff related to animal humane treatment. At my farm we have been able to successfully farrow pigs without farrowing cages, but it does require dedicating more space for pregnant sows, using deep straw bedding to allow natural nesting behavior, using creep boxes so piglets have a safe place to go between feedings to help reduce accidental crushing, and more labor to supervise births and to ensure piglet safety. In other words, our production costs are higher but it is a tradeoff we choose to make for the humane treatment of animals.

It is easier and more efficient to raise pigs indoors rather than outdoors in pastures or forest, yet here is the word–tradeoff–again. Confined indoor pigs can get sick easier so many large-scale factory farms introduced the liberal use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in feed and water to prevent disease, (and to help spur pig growth.) Experts now believe that the overuse of antibiotics in animal production has resulted in a loss of effectiveness of these important drugs for use with humans; and in January of 2017, the FDA will now require farmers and ranchers to get a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals. We feel this change was long overdue. Indoor confinement of animals also raises the issue of manure disposal and the attendant issues that slurry disposal has on air and water quality.

Outdoor pig production is more successful with the use of heritage breeds that tolerate sunlight and temperature extremes well, but heritage breeds tend to have smaller litters and grow slower than some of the breeds used in larger commercial operations. Outdoor production requires more land, more fencing, and more staff to rotate and feed herds, but pigs that are raised outdoors do not need non-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent disease, and their life outdoors results in other consumer benefits. The Vitamin D in sunlight helps transform fat into healthier omega 3 fat, hogs get leaner through exercise, and the meat is more marbled and tender through stress-free living.

The constant drive for efficiency has also caused tradeoffs in the use of animal food and food additives. It is more cost-effective to feed livestock GMO produced grains, and the use of non-protein food additives can be used to lower the cost of–or increase the profit on–sausages and prepared foods. We have no issue with the concept of genetically modified plants if the modifications are intended to accomplish good things such as reducing water use or make a plant more drought resistant. However, genetic modification is too often use to allow plants and seeds to be immune to the use of certain herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals can be harmful to workers, pollute our water supply, and leach into the food we eat and that will not be good for our health. Similarly, food additives can introduce ingredients with dubious nutritional and health benefits. GMO feed and food additives are another form of ethical trade-offs that meat producers need to make. At my farm, choose to never feed our animals GMO food, or use food additives, even though these decisions mean we live with a smaller profit margin. We accept this consequence in the interest of our own health as we also eat the food we produce.

Lastly, will new regulations such as Massachusetts ballot question 3 raise costs for farmers and ultimately consumers? The answer for the short term is probably yes, and maybe no, depending on how a family already shops. Any regulation that might disrupt the current high levels of farmer meat productivity could have short-term negative financial consequences. Large agricultural conglomerates in the United States control the greatest portion of actual consumer sales, and this industry consolidation has already made many consumers wary. Many may think that these big companies are very profitable and they can afford to take a profit hit in the interest of healthier food and better animal treatment.

However, these conglomerates are more involved in the processing of food rather than the production of it. In the case of pork production, surprisingly more than 80% of actual pork production is still in the hands of family owned farms, and these smaller businesses are the backbone of job growth and prosperity in our economy. So the family farm (especially those who are contract growers for conglomerates) will feel the brunt of the pressure to deal with new production processes while maintaining current price levels, regardless of the introduction of new laws related to animal treatment and the restriction on the use of antibiotics or other practices. If they cannot pass on increases in operational costs to the food processors, the farmer’s profits will be lower, and some family farms may fail. However, we believe that Americans have shown over and over again that when faced with new challenges we innovate to find new solutions. The MA Animal Confinement law does not go into effect until 2022, and that is a fair amount of time for producers to adopt more humane animal treatment standards.

We also believe that more and more consumers are beginning to see there have been unacceptable consequences of cheap meat, and inhumane animal treatment is just one of them. We do believe when more agricultural businesses focus on a more balanced score card that considers production efficiency, humane treatment of animals, long-term sustainability, environmental impact, and the safety and healthiness of the products we produce, it will result in a movement away from concentrated animal operations to smaller distributed family-run farms that are closer to regional markets. That shift would be good for employment and the economy, reduce the cost of food transportation, produce healthier meats, and help to reduce the cost of health care. There are enough of us alternative producers around now to demonstrate that production efficiency can be achieved without animal confinement and benefits of outdoor natural production can outweigh the increased costs.

One final argument on the cost debate is those of us who are already producing meats with a balanced scorecard will not raise our prices just because commodity pork prices end up going up due to new regulations. Alternative farms are already offering all natural meats from animals that are humanely raised, and consumers have established expectations of what humanely raised meat should cost. While some consumers already accept that the cost of humanely and naturally raised meat may be slightly higher than commodity meats, these consumers have developed new strategies to avoid hurting their food budgets. Some consumers have cut down on the amount of meat they eat so they can afford better quality, others are buying in bulk, or learning to cook with less costly cuts to extend their food dollars.

We do feel the way meat is produced in this country needs to get back to the way our grandparents raised animals all naturally and humanely. The American drive for efficiency has benefited consumers in in many ways when it comes products like electronics, automobiles, and most manufactured goods. However, when it comes to the meat production, the pendulum for efficiency has gone too far and that has produced unacceptable consequences in the treatment of animals and the safety of the food we are putting in our mouths. It is time for consumers to take a stand and demand changes such as MA ballot question # 3, and we urge you to vote yes.

Peter Burrows, Owner, Brown Boar Farm

About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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7 Responses to Massachusetts Ballot question 3, op-ed

  1. T says:

    Sorry but I am voting for the animal!!!!
    Think about how you can cut down on
    Other things and let the animals have
    A semi normal life before they are
    Slaughtered !!!

  2. El Tucker says:

    I have been an animal advocate (not radical activist!) and an advocate for the poor all my life. This ballot question is being forced upon us by the radical, militant agenda of a Washingtonian Power house who spent $10M in California to get a similar law passed and now have spent $1.7M here in MA. If this Washingtonian machine and folks that are being deceived actually understood that HSUS is not associated w/ local humane societies that actually rescue and shelter animals, and that they only giving 1% of their vast millions to rescue, they might be surprised. Most of their vast millions go to salaries, lawyers, pension funds and off-shore accounts – FACT! These people haven’t a clue about animal behavior and how to really care for animals in a way that is safe and healthy for them! Only one farm in MA cages chickens, one hen per cage and they are too small a farm to be be commercial. There are NO factory farms in MA. Chickens are notoriously cruel to one another; they fight to maintain the pecking order often to the death, and they can be cannibalistic! Farmers depend on, and prefer LIVE and HEALTHY hens. 99.9% of MA farms pasture raise hens. Big Corporations that sell “Cage Free” eggs are deceptive in their labeling. These hens are not outside nor on pasture ranging free “home home on the range!” They live and roam in huge buildings w/ thousands of hens kicking up contaminated dust, fighting and cannibalizing one another, defecating in their food and water and are far less healthy than any hen raised in a true free range manner or enriched caged system. The highest number of salmonella outbreaks have happened in these factory, “cage free” production houses – they are not farms. Supporting this initiative actually support these type of factory eggs, which is far less humane and where HSUS and radical activists should be focusing their millions to fight, not family farms in MA. If this law passes the only eggs available will be these “Cage Free” eggs that are more expensive than regular store eggs, and the ones that will be the cheapest will be from these factories, thereby the biggest market share will be given over to corporate agriculture not farms who cannot compete. Actual free range production on real farms is more costly. In the bigger picture, those who will be most affected are the poor and organizations that feed the poor and homeless who can ill afford to purchase the higher priced “cage free” factory eggs. Institutions that buy in bulk will see added food costs as will restaurants and not just for breakfast eggs but for all products that eggs go into! Today we have a choice to buy whatever eggs suits our budgets and conscience. I prefer choice in all parts of my life and when money is tight, I would buy the regular eggs over the factory “cage-free” eggs any day, they are cleaner! I am lucky to live near farms and can get the best eggs. Please think of the poor who have limited choices for protein, eggs being one of the best and cheapest! and Do Not let Big Ag win any more of the market share than they already have. Big Cheese CEOs will get the most, I do not like that at all!

    • El, as a family farm owner, I can be just as suspicious of lobbyists of any kind just as you are. However, unless I am interpreting the proposed law incorrectly, it does not in fact prohibit raising chickens in a cage type system. The proposed law only requires that “In the case of egg-laying hens, fully extending the animals limbs means fully spreading both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg laying hens and having at least 1.5 feet of usable floor space per hen.” It further defines in the case of hens that the square footage area of elevated flat platforms inside an enclosure can be used in the calculation of usable floor space. That’s pretty much it. The proposed law does not say chickens can’t be enclosed or covered, just that the enclosure must meet the specific space criteria mentioned. We raise pork and beef and not chickens, so we are no experts in chickens and hen house practices. However, when we have visited other family owned farms that raise chickens, it seems to us that they are for the most part already meeting the criteria proposed by the law, and would not have to change any of their practices. However, it would be nice to hear from some additional chicken farmers on this blog for their interpretation of the proposed law and if there are in fact unreasonable restrictions that will impact their livelihood.

      By the way, the language proposed in ballot question 3 “would also prohibit a business owner or operator in Massachusetts from selling whole eggs intended for human consumption or any uncooked cut of veal of pork if the business owner operator knows or should know that the hen, breeding pig, or veal calf that produced these products was confined in a manner prohibited by the proposed law.” Because the proposed law covers businesses that are selling such products, those business will be unlikely to purchase products in the future from out of state farms that do not comply with the law. Our farm is located in Vermont, but we sell in MA, and so we must comply with the proposed law if we wish to continue to sell out products in MA. So, the big Ag and factory farms that you reference may find it hard to find buyers in Mass unless they raise their chickens according to the proposed language in the ballot question. Wouldn’t this actually help family farms that do provide adequate space to chickens better compete against farms that utilize overcrowded and unhealthy conditions?

    • Dorian Greenbaum says:

      Your poorly written, unsourced and inaccurate response is straight out of the Big Ag playbook. Hens raised in battery cages are not being raised humanely. The least we can do is ban the sale of eggs from chickens raised under these conditions. I wonder if the eggs you buy are from this “one farmer” who cages his hens one per cage, or whether you are buying eggs from farms where the chickens are allowed to run around, eat grass and bugs, and live like chickens. As for veal and pigs in crates, these practices are clearly inhumane as well and, as Peter Burrows has eloquently shown, pigs can be raised humanely and profitably without them. Lawton’s in Foxboro raises veal calves who are in fields with other calves, not in crates. It is completely possible to raise animals in humane conditions without huge increases in prices, to say nothing of the health benefits from eating superior quality food from humanely raised animals. That is the dirty secret Big Ag does not want you to know. Read Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales and you will see this.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I heartily believe in the old fashioned farming habits that our country has been using for eons. For those who can afford higher prices – good for you – but those of us on the lower economic scale are just fine the way things are – why people who have no knowledge of farming spread this malarkey I w/ never know!!!!!!

    • Mom says:

      I sincerely hope you are kidding. Take a walk through some of the commercial meat “farmers”! THEY A RE IN NO WAY “OLD FASHIONED FARMERS”!!! These animals suffer while they are alive and it’s inhumane, cruel and disgusting!

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