The national body for New Zealand’s commercial egg industry says the Government’s planned 10-year phase-out period for battery cages is “impossible to achieve” and could cripple the industry.
And the new measures have also been met with criticism from animal welfare groups who argue the new cages are no improvement.
More than 80 percent of New Zealand eggs are currently laid by hens in battery cages, but from today no new battery cages can be installed by egg producers.
Minister for Primary Industries David Carter says the change, part of a new code of welfare for layer hens, address concerns over the effects of battery farming.
“Scientific evidence and strong public opinion have made it clear that change is necessary,” he says.
In order to soften the blow of the new rules to the egg industry, battery cages will not be entirely prohibited until 2022, and Mr Carter expects more than half of New Zealand’s battery cages to still be in use in six years’ time.
“About 45 percent of battery cages will be gone by 2018.”
However, chairman of the Egg Producers Federation (EPF) Michael Guthrie argues the Government is expecting too much from the 47 producers who are responsible for all of New Zealand’s battery eggs.
“The proposed phase-out period […] is impossible to achieve in practical and financial terms,” he says. “This will have an enormous, possibly even crippling impact on many in the industry.”
Mr Guthrie’s major concern is that while the transition period lasts 10 years, the schedule of interim phase-out targets will force producers to make major changes well before 2022.
“Even if you could do it financially, which is doubtful given the current climate of not being able to borrow – and most of these farmers will have to rebuild not just equipment, but sheds – it’s an impossibility because of resource consent issues.”
‘Harsh and punitive’ - EPF
The EPF says all farmers using battery cages will have to rebuild their operations from scratch, and that for most of this group this will mean rebuilding on a new site.
“Current cages and sheds would be largely worthless and existing land will more often than not be unconsentable for changed operations,” it says in a statement.
It’s estimated that the cost of the change to the industry will be upwards of $150 million if all battery farmers adopt the colony cage system, according to the EPF. If farmers choose to go free-range, it’s claimed the costs would top $250 million.
While the federation says it’s “unable to assess” at this stage the numbers of farmers that will choose to pursue either free-range, barn or colony operations, Mr Guthrie says many will choose to quit.
“A significant number of farmers will quit the industry having been left with a farming operation with little intrinsic value.”
And he says the Government is unfairly punishing an industry that has co-operated with plans for reform.
“This formula is, quite frankly, harsh and punitive for an industry that has been actively working with Government, has invested significant money and effort in research into modern farming systems and has actively sought to modernize its welfare practice.”
‘A cage, is a cage, is a cage’ - SPCA
Yet for groups including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE), the question of how long it will take to replace battery cages is secondary to the debate over what should replace them.
The EPF says colony cages are “well researched,” and are an improvement on battery cages. That view is supported by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), who advised Mr Carter that colony cages were “an acceptable option”.
“They allow hens to display a range of normal behaviours,” says committee chair Dr John Hellström. “Colony cages are bigger, typically housing 40-60 birds, and include a secluded nesting area, perches and a scratching area.”
However the SPCA national chief executive Robyn Kippenberger explicitly disagrees.
“These layer hens still cannot express their natural behaviour,” she says. “Hens have to vie for restricted space in inadequate nest boxes and the scratch pad for 60 birds is so small it is just pathetic. The perches are just centimetres off the cage floor and the birds cannot dust bathe for the entirety of their lives.”
Despite NAWAC’s assurances, and the years of research carried out on colony cages, the SPCA has retained its opposition.
“Battery cages give a layer hen approximately the same space as an A4 piece of paper to live on their entire life and the colony cages allow an additional 200 square cm per hen. The SPCA does not believe this is an improvement at all,” it says in a statement.
“A cage, is a cage, is a cage,” says Ms Kippenberger.
It’s statements like that which Mr Guthrie says annoy egg producers who have spent a lot of time and money researching farming methods.
He denies that animal welfare standards in the egg producing industry are lacking, but says there has been a lack of information about what is best for hens.
“There was this great void in the debate where it’s all very well to say ‘cages are wrong,’ but what is the alternative?
“Free range is not the silver bullet on the welfare thing – there are massive issues with farming free range on a welfare basis.”
Mr Guthrie says it has taken 15 years of research to develop the colony cage system, which he describes as bridging the gap between the battery system and approaches which offer hens more freedom of movement – and he says legislation against cages has been reversed in Europe to allow for the introduction of colonies.
However SAFE executive director Hans Kriek is far from convinced, condemning the colony cages as cruel and inadequate.
Claims of secrecy
Mr Kriek says Mr Carter has let New Zealand down by approving the colony system, which he says has been kept away from the public eye.
“The media has been kept away completely from the one farm in New Zealand that was trialling [colony cages] here,” he says.
“How can you say you did a public debate about a new farming system that nobody actually has any knowledge about?”
SAFE’s claims over the secrecy surrounding the trial were discussed in a Campbell Live episode from July last year, and the EPF responded to the story at the time, saying that media requests were denied as the access was “neither useful nor practical”.
Consumers can vote with their wallets
Mr Kriek says it’s possible New Zealand won’t get another chance to get rid of cages for layer hens in the next 30 to 40 years.
“We will have cages for hens, probably for the next three to four decades at least, unless something else happens.”
SAFE, along with the SPCA, are hoping that “something else” will be a change forced by consumer spending habits.
Mr Kreik claims 80 percent of the public want battery cages banned, and says SAFE is looking to build on this support with a new campaign – “our biggest televised ad campaign ever” – which it is launching on Monday.
And Ms Kippenberger points to evidence that demand for free-range eggs continues to rise.
“The New Zealand free-range egg industry is steadily growing by one percent each year, proving that consumers will pay more to free birds living in cages,” she says. “New Zealand consumers will vote with their wallets as we have seen in Europe and there will be a diminishing market for caged bird eggs.”
Mr Kriek says the European example is a model that New Zealand can follow, citing Austria and Germany as examples of countries moving towards abandonment of all caged eggs.
“So many consumers refused to buy caged eggs that supermarkets simply stopped selling them, and that’s what we have to move to in New Zealand as well,” he says.
But Mr Guthrie disagrees that cages are on the way out in Europe.
“Spain is the biggest producer of eggs and the biggest consumer of eggs [and] 90 percent plus of their eggs are coming out of these systems.”
He claims countries like Germany who have “taken the moral high ground” and worked towards banning cages, have "exported their conscience" by continuing to import eggs from countries that cage their hens.