BOSTON -- Lawmakers are moving to tweak a 2016 voter-approved law requiring larger enclosures for egg-laying chickens by reducing the sizes of their coops.
The Senate last week agreed to scale back the voter approved requirement of at least 1.5 square feet per bird to only 1 square foot for large "aviary systems." The proposed update is before the House of Representatives, which could take action this week.
Question 3 on the 2016 ballot, which banned shelled eggs, veal and other meat produced by cage-confined farm animals, was approved by more than 77% of voters.
But egg producers say its limits are stricter than what other states require and would lead to egg shortages and higher prices in Massachusetts when the law goes into effect next January.
Most animal welfare groups are on board with the update, which includes "enhancements" to improve the welfare of egg-laying hens used to supply retail markets.
Stephanie Harris, a lobbyist with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the changes would be a significant improvement over the current law.
"It will greatly enhance these egg-laying hens' lives," said Harris, who worked on the Yes on 3 campaign. "They'll be able to engage in vital natural behaviors such as perching, scratching and laying eggs in a nest regardless of the enclosure type."
The 1.5-square-foot dimensions would still be required for egg-producing farms that strictly use cages. But the limit would be reduced for cage-free aviary systems, which allow birds to move around.
A poll conducted by the group, released Monday, shows widespread support for updating the law. At least 68% of about 2,000 likely voters surveyed supported changes to the law, Harris said.
To be sure, Massachusetts isn't home to many large-scale egg and pork-producing farms. Most products sold here come from other states. But the 2016 referendum also applies to products sent to Massachusetts.
Some groups, such as the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, have pushed the state to implement the law as approved. They say some egg producing farms have already made costly modifications to comply.
Attorney General Maura Healey's office recently released draft regulations for the law, which largely keep the voter approved plan intact. Healey's office is accepting public testimony on the proposal through August.
But those regulations would need to be updated before the law goes into effect, to reflect changes to the size of the enclosures and other adjustments.
To be sure, not everyone is pleased the legislation is finally advancing.
A California-based animal welfare group that sued the state last year to force implementation of the law said the changes will mean "cruel" conditions.
"By using deceptive scare tactics and threatening price hikes, the egg industry is essentially engaged in extortion," Brad Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, said in a statement. "By succumbing to this egg industry tactic, the Massachusetts Senate is clearly subverting the will of voters."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Eagle-Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org