By Jonathan Underhill
Kiwis love eggs. We manage to get through 1 billion of them a year (a small portion is exported). Pumping them out are 3.3 million hens, living on 140 farms throughout the country.
From today a new welfare code is in force for layer hens. It calls for the phasing out of battery cages by 2022. As Primary Industries Minister David Carter says, “scientific evidence and strong public opinion have made it clear that change is necessary.”
Some consumers buy free-range but many are too cash-constrained and buy on value – eggs from battery farms. They currently account for 83 percent of the eggs produced in New Zealand.
As battery cages are phased out, eggs are going to become more expensive. The change to the welfare code will add 10 percent to 14 percent to the price of eggs, according to government figures.
Free range, though, isn’t what’s envisaged by the new code. The bulk of New Zealand’s hens will be relocating from battery cages that house three to five hens to what are called colony cages, where they’ll live in groups of 20 and 90, but typically 40 to 60.
Colony cages are a step up for hens because they have a bit of kit in them – perches, a scratching area and a ‘secluded’ nesting area. Biosecurity refers to them as being ‘furnished’. That gives them more scope to display typical hennish behavior - nesting, perching, scratching and pecking.
They’ll also be able to stretch their legs a bit because the new housing allows each hen to have 750 square centimetres of space – a palace compared to battery cages of a minimum 550 sq cm.
I have to admit being a little bit disappointed when I looked up colony cages on Google images. They’re still in cages stacked in sheds and they can be stacked high. There’s no requirement for natural light. At best it seems an incremental improvement and this is what we’re stuck with for the next decade.
The trouble with the work of the National Animal Welfare Code Advisory Committee is that they must look at animal welfare dispassionately. They can’t anthropomorphise what are basically farmed animals. It must make sense economically no matter how much some believe hens deserve to roam, perch in trees and scratch for insects in the orchard. We’re talking about a billion eggs.
And colony cages are a step up in welfare that has gained buy-in from the industry. “The New Zealand egg industry has indicated its desire to move to this new system as soon as economically possible” the Egg Producers Federation says. It calls the move to colony cages “a well-researched egg farming method.”
Animal rights lobby group SAFE calls colony cages “a cruel joke” that allow only a facsimile of natural behavior. SAFE campaigned against their introduction but didn’t hold sway in the process of the new code being drawn up.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is also unhappy, branding the step up to colony cages "pathetic".
“A cage, is a cage, is a cage,” said SPCA National CEO Robyn Kippenberger.
The minimum standards for colony cages are spelled out in the code, which states among other things that the floor slope must not exceed 8 degrees. The cage must be at least 45 cm high (except in the nest area). Perches must provide at least 15 cm of space per hen and allow all bird in the cage to perch at the same time.
Lighting is also specified. There must be eight hours of continuous darkness in every 24-hour period and lighting levels during the lit phases must be a minimum 20 lux at hen level “so that the hens can see each other and their surroundings.
That’s not very bright – about the same as a street light at night. Your living room might be 100 lux. A bright office might be about 400 lux and daylight on a cloudy day could be 5000 lux. A candle is 10-15 lux. Recommended best practice in the code is 50 lux.
Ventilation also has minimum standards. Immediate remedial action must be taken if ammonia levels greater than 20 ppm are detected at hen level. Best practice is that ammonia levels should only get to 10 ppm.
Humane destruction can be by electrical stunning followed by neck dislocation and exsanguination, neck dislocation alone, gassing with a mix of inert gases and/or carbon dioxide and “immediate fragmentation/maceration” for unhatched eggs and day-old chicks. Any other method must be supervised by a vet.
So that’s progress. I wonder what subtle changes of marketing will follow the move to colony cages.