Eggs from caged hens would be phased out by 2036 under a major plan to end the practice of keeping poultry in battery cages across the country.

Key points:

  • The plan has already been criticised by animal welfare groups for being too slow to end the use of cages, while the industry wanted a longer phase-out lasting until 2046
  • Australia has been an outlier on chicken welfare, with 30 of the 36 nations of the OECD either having phased out battery cages or in the process of getting rid of them
  • Eggs from caged hens are losing popularity at supermarkets, but a phase-out could see prices increase at shops and restaurants

The federal government has been forced to table proposed new standards for poultry welfare in parliament.

The draft standards were written by an independent panel, which has recommended traditional battery cages be phased out between 2032 and 2036.

But the plan has already been criticised by animal welfare groups for being too slow to end the use of cages, while the industry wanted a longer phase-out lasting until 2046.

Internationally, Australia has been an outlier on chicken welfare, with 30 of the 36 nations of the OECD either having phased out battery cages or in the process of getting rid of them.

RSPCA senior policy officer Jed Goodfellow said they’d been outlawed in Europe since 2012, and New Zealand would finish their use next year.

Free range chickens at Green Eggs farm, in western Victoria

The RSPCA would like to see the phase-out of existing cages happen faster.(

Danielle Grindlay

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“It is impossible to meet the welfare needs of hens inside these cage systems.”

The RSPCA would like to see the phase-out of existing cages, which would have been installed in about 2008, happen faster.

“We would like to see the transition timeline shortened considerably. Ten to 15 years is far too long,” Mr Goodfellow said.

“We can produce safe, affordable, nutritious eggs without confining animals to small, barren cages.”

Caged hen eggs losing favour with consumers

While caged hen eggs have lost popularity on supermarket shelves, their decline from the commercial cooking sector has been slower.

Just over half the eggs sold at the grocery shops are free-range, but the commercial sector uses a higher proportion of eggs from caged hens.

A long list of Australian manufacturers including Arnotts, McDonald’s and Messina already use free-range eggs in their products.

But smaller producers such as bakeries and restaurants may have to put up their prices if they are forced to switch to free-range eggs, which are generally more expensive.

While the recommendations are expected to be met with resistance from some farmers, others say they are well overdue.

A Victorian government review of scientific literature found caged hens had five times more bone fractures than hens in other systems.

The new standards were only tabled after Greens senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi forced the government to release details of the new standards in a special motion in the Senate.

The government denied it was forced and said it did not oppose the motion to table the documents.

Eggs for sale in a supermarket

Just over half the eggs sold at grocery stores are free-range, but the commercial sector uses a higher proportion of caged eggs.(

ABC: Jo Prendergast

)

“This process has been going on in some form or another since 2013 so there has been plenty of time for the industry to change their practices. It’s really time for some action,” Dr Faruqi said.

“Countries around the world have already ended or phased out cages.

“I’m certainly not convinced the industry needs up to 15 years to transition away from battery cages, it can and it should happen faster.

“We know the vast majority of people have been really concerned about hens being kept in such cruel and inhumane conditions.”

NSW government accused of collusion

Setting the new standards has been a protracted process that began more than four years ago.

It was then that the NSW government had been asked to lead the process for national reforms via its Department of Primary Industries.

The ABC published documents at the time suggesting the department colluded with the chicken industry to stifle attempts at a phase-out — something the government and industry denied.

New South Wales is the largest producer of caged hen eggs in the country, and about one-third of Australia’s chicken farms are in the state.

Following the report, the project was taken out of the NSW government’s hands and handed over to an independent panel.

The federal government’s most recent draft attributes the establishment of the national panel to an “unprecedented number of public submissions made during public consultation” and a decision by all the state agriculture ministers.

The new recommendations do allow for the use of so-called “furnished cages”, which are a larger version of battery cages with things like scratch pads, perches, and nest areas for the hens.

Eggs on a conveyor belt passing below chooks in cages.

An independent panel  has recommended traditional battery cages be phased out between 2032 and 2036.(

ABC Rural: Brett Worthington

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However, industry experts suggest it is unlikely many farmers would spend money replacing battery cages with slightly larger ones and would be more likely to move to barn-laid systems altogether.

Once approved, it will be up to the state agriculture departments to turn the new standards into state-based regulations.

Battery hens to be outlawed by 2036 under new national proposal
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