By Christian M. Wade
---- — BOSTON - While confining-cage techniques are virtually non-existent in Massachusetts, supporters argue that a ban would prevent large-scale factory farms that use the practices from coming into the state.
“This is about ensuring that farm animals in the state are treated humanely,” said Alexis Fox, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society.
Farming industry representatives say a ban is unnecessary because the practice is not widespread in the state. They argue that animal rights activists are trying to impose a national agenda on the state’s small, mostly family-owned agricultural industry.
“These groups don’t want farm animals at all — their agenda is total veganism,” said Rich Bonanno, a Methuen vegetable and plant farmer and president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. “And it’s not like these large-scale farms are standing on the border of Massachusetts waiting to come in. These groups want the legislature to ban a practice that doesn’t exist in the state.”
The legislation, sponsored by state Sens. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, and Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, is backed by a coalition of animal rights groups and dozens of lawmakers including Reps. John Keenan, D-Salem, and Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers. State lawmakers considered similar legislation in the 2011-12 session, but the bill stalled before it could be voted on.
“It’s certainly not widespread, but the reality is we really don’t know for sure that these confinement cages aren’t in use on other farms in the state,” Lewis said. “More importantly, we want to make sure these practices don’t come here in the future.”
Enforcement would be complaint-driven, he said, and the proposed ban would require that enclosures be big enough for the animals to fully extend their wings or legs, lie down, stand up and turn around. Violators would face fines of up to $1,000 and 180 days in jail.
Fox said the issue has become more urgent after the group discovered recent statements by a Newbury pig farmer — testifying in opposition of a similar bill in the Connecticut Legislature — who said she was considering using gestation crates. The crates are metal cages used to immobilize breeding pigs and are often used on large-scale farms.
She said at least one farm in western Massachusetts, Diemand Farms in Wendell, uses battery cages for about 3,000 egg-laying hens. The wire cages are stacked in rows, similar to battery cells, and usually contain four or more egg-laying hens packed together.
“These are egg laying hens that are kept in cages that are so small they can’t even spread their wings,” Fox said. “It’s a horrible existence.”
Lisa Colby keeps about 30 pigs at a small Newbury farm that bears her family’s name. She hasn’t used gestation cages for her pigs yet but wants the freedom to be able to use them and takes issue with animals rights groups telling her how to run her business.
“Nothing bothers me more than animal abuse, but farmers don’t want some Washington, D.C.-based group telling us how to raise our animals,” said Colby, president of the Essex County Farm Bureau. “It’s very frustrating that they’re telling me how to run my operation when they’ve never handled livestock.”
Colby said despite claims that the gestation crates are cruel and inhumane, she said they can be effective on small farms by containing aggressive sows, which can grow to more than 600 pounds, after they give birth and protecting workers handling their piglets.
“The sows become very protective of their young and will charge you,” Colby said. “It’s a safety issue for our workers.”
The effort in Massachusetts is part of a recent national movement by animal welfare organizations to ask voters to help decide how their food is raised. Nine other states have passed laws phasing out the practice, and Connecticut also is considering a ban.
Under pressure from animal welfare groups, fast-food giant McDonald’s, major meat-processor Hormel and others agreed three years ago to end the use of tightly-confining pens at pig farms operated by their suppliers.
Meanwhile, an unlikely pact between egg producers and animal rights groups in California is reducing the size of battery cages for millions of egg-laying chickens across the country. California lawmakers also have taken the step of prohibiting retailers from selling eggs produced in other states and countries that use battery cages, beginning in 2015.
In Massachusetts, public opinion appears to be behind a ban. A recent statewide poll, commissioned by animal rights groups, found that 90 percent of voters support outlawing extreme confinement of farm animals, while only 5 percent oppose it. The telephone poll of 625 voters was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research from Feb. 25 to 27. The poll had a 4 percent margin of error.
Lewis said marketing Massachusetts-bred livestock as cage-free could be a major selling point for the state’s farmers.
“There is a growing consumer demand both for locally and humanely grown agricultural products and I think Massachusetts farms are well positioned to meet that demand,” he said. “Our smaller-scale farms are an important part of the Massachusetts economy.”
Bonanno said the farm bureau is pushing for approval of legislation that would create a livestock standards board comprised of farmers and other stakeholders to regulate the use of confinement cages and other farming techniques in the state.
“We’re the experts,” he said. “The fact is we know what’s best for the animals and the safety of the person handling that animals.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts State House for CNHI newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org