Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill Wednesday that sets new standards for the egg industry, averting what the industry had projected would be a scarcity of eggs available for sale in Massachusetts in 2022.
Lawmakers had approved the legislation aimed at changing standards to a 2016 voter-approved animal welfare law that required eggs and meat farmed and sold in the state to come from livestock that was not confined to tight spaces.
The new standards would allow farmers to hold hens in spaces of less than 1.5 square feet provided they have access to vertical space.
The 2016 question was backed by more than 77% of voters. It prohibited the sale of eggs in Massachusetts from farms where hens were confined "in a way that prevents the animal from laying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs or turning around freely."
The prohibition also applied to farms that raise "any breeding pig" or "calf raised for veal."
The law was set to take effect in 2022.
Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement Wednesday that when Massachusetts voters approved the ballot question in 2016, the state had some of the strongest protections for farm animals in the country.
"Since then, national and industry standards have shifted towards even stronger animal welfare and consumer safety protections," she said. "With this law, Massachusetts is taking action to prevent cruelty to farm animals and ensure that our state has continued access to eggs."
Egg industry leaders had said that if state legislators did not make changes to the law, up to 90% of the egg supply in the state would disappear in January.
Some animal advocates had urged Baker, a Republican, not to sign the bill, saying it undercuts what voters approved in 2016.
Under the voter-approved law, hens were to receive "the smallest amount of relief from abject cruelty," said Tracy Reiman, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA
"Now even that pittance is to be snatched away by this deeply cruel industry," Reiman said in a press release before Baker signed the changes into law. "We urge consumers to refuse to buy eggs, for which chickens suffer mightily."
Other animal rights groups say they support the changes approved by lawmakers and signed by Baker.
They say one important change is that the law now applies not just to eggs in shells - as it did under the original ballot question - but expands the definition to cover egg products, mirroring legislation approved in other states.
The law also defines cage-free as at least "one square foot of usable floor space per hen in multi-tiered aviaries, partially-slatted cage-free housing systems or any other cage-free housing system that provides hens with unfettered access to vertical space so that hens can engage in vital natural behaviors such as perching, scratching, dust bathing and laying eggs in a nest."