Food safety is a top headline every few months due to industry food recalls or disease outbreaks. Considering the large number of Americans sickened every day by foodborne pathogens, this issue also deserves to be at the top of the political agenda as well. That's why I'm very encouraged that here in Massachusetts we have the opportunity to vote for a ballot measure that would significantly bolster food safety and protect human health.
Question 3 would simply require egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal be given enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around, and extend their limbs. While this requirement is clearly good for animals used by some multinational meat and egg corporations and often locked in cages so small they're rendered virtually immobile – it may not be obvious at first glance why this measure would make our food safer. But the benefits for Massachusetts families would truly be profound.
Corporate factory farms that confine animals in cages are havens for dangerous pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella. For example, more than a dozen scientific studies have determined that egg operations that keep hens caged are more likely to harbor Salmonella than cage-free facilities. Why would there be such a clear difference? When animals are locked shoulder to shoulder in cages, disease can spread rapidly from animal to animal. In addition, the constant stress of being unable to move, combined with physical deterioration from lack of exercise, can weaken the animals' immune systems.
This issue should resonate with every Massachusetts resident. In 2010, it was established that a Massachusetts girl was sickened in a massive Salmonella outbreak linked to two Iowa egg facilities owned by industry magnate Jack DeCoster. Officials estimate the outbreak may have sickened more than 50,000 Americans. In a rare example of a food industry CEO being held accountable, DeCoster was sentenced to jail time. But earlier this year, the Humane Society of the United States exposed nightmarish cruelty at another DeCoster-owned facility (this time in Maine) that sells eggs to Massachusetts consumers. The Humane Society documented live hens forced to lay eggs on top of the rotting carcasses of their dead cage-mates. Poisoned rodents were also found in hens' cages. When a worker asked his supervisor about helping one of the many sick hens, he was told "as long as it's standing up and laying eggs, that's all that matters." To date, no reply has been received from DeCoster.
During this tense election year, Massachusetts voters are grappling with many tough issues. This isn't one of them. Question 3 is a commonsense measure to protect our families from substandard, inhumane, and unsafe products, while promoting responsible agriculture. It deserves your "yes" vote on November 8.
Dr. Jennifer Leaning is the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.