New Zealand's revised battery cage phaseout makes egg industry transition feasible

New Zealand's egg farmers started 2014 with a victory of sorts, having won a more favorable phaseout period for battery cage egg production. New Zealand, like the European Union before it, has decided to ban the use of conventional cages. New Zealand's egg farmers started 2014 with a victory of sorts, having won a more favorable phaseout period for battery cage egg production.

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Watch Terrence O'Keefe, editor of Egg Industry, talk about setting standards for enriched cages in the US.
Watch Terrence O'Keefe, editor of Egg Industry, talk about setting standards for enriched cages in the US.

New Zealand's egg farmers started 2014 with a victory of sorts, having won a more favorable phaseout period for battery cage egg production. New Zealand, like the European Union before it, has decided to ban the use of conventional cages. While the egg industry has been broadly in favor of the change, the timetable for implementation had been described as "brutal."

New Zealand's Draft Code for Animal Welfare - Layer Hens was released by the country's then Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in February 2011, and among its key recommendations was the gradual phasing out of conventional cages by 2022.

This proposal to move away from conventional cages was consistent with the New Zealand egg industry's own direction. However, on release of the draft, the industry was at pains to point out that any change could not occur overnight, in part due to the investment needed, but also to prevent interruption to an affordable supply of eggs.

Views considered?

By late 2012, the Code of Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) had been released by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Michael Guthrie, chairman of the Egg Producers Federation (EPF), commented: "Our argument is not with the code per se, but the extremely short phaseout period for cages impacted by the code. The proposed phaseout period, which we assess in practical terms to be more like four to six years, and not the 10 suggested by the Ministry for Primary Industries, is impossible to achieve in practical and financial terms. This will have an enormous, possibly even crippling impact on many in the industry."

As initially released, the code envisaged the phasing out of battery cages by 2022, and the adoption of minimum standards and best practices for layer hens. From December 7, 2012, battery cages would no longer be allowed to be installed, only colony cages would be permitted, and existing battery cages would be progressively removed over a 10-year period.

The code envisioned that cages installed before December 31, 1999, would have to be replaced by December 31, 2016, while cages installed before December 2001 would need to be replaced by December 31, 2018. Cages installed before December 31, 2003 would need to be replaced by December 31, 2020.

There are around 126 egg farms in New Zealand housing 3.3 million hens, and producing approximately 1 billion eggs annually. Approximately 83 percent of New Zealand's eggs are from conventional cages, and come from approximately 47 producers. About 3 percent of eggs are produced in barns and approximately 14 are produced in barns with access to the outdoors. Most eggs produced are for the domestic market, although there is a small export industry.

The New Zealand egg industry has not stood still regarding concerns over conventional cages, and some years back contributed funding to a model colony shed with 45,000 birds near Dunedin to test the system under New Zealand conditions.

The NZ$1 million (US$827,750) project has seen the colony system subjected to rigorous investigations by the country's industry and the Ministry of Agriculture in association with the UK's Bristol University. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), an independent advisory committee set up to provide advice to the MPI, has approved the colony system as being welfare acceptable.

Glimmer of hope

In light of concerns raised by egg producers, NAWAC announced in March last year that it had commissioned an independent assessment of the practicability and feasibility of its transition. The report's findings would be used to make recommendations to the MPI, and in June 2013, the findings were published.

The author noted that the provisions would require the replacement of all existing cages, the construction of new sheds as existing sheds would not hold as many birds, and in some cases the building of new farms to accommodate the increased space requirements. A survey found that some 30 percent of the current flock would remain in the same sheds, 24 percent in new sheds on the same land, and 24 percent would require new farms.

A downturn in production over the transition period due to shed conversion was estimated at 2 percent of national production over the transition period. The longer and more even across time the conversion process occurred, the less the impact of the hiatus on production, the report stated.

In the view of the report's author, there was a high risk of significant disruption to the marketplace associated with the early parts of the code of welfare transition pathway. In order to address this problem, alternate transition pathways needed to be considered.

Regarding the pathway to change, the report's recommendations were taken on board on advice of NAWAC and, in December 2013, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy announced amendments to the Code of Welfare.

While the final date for all layer hens to be out of battery cages has remained the same, the transition dates have been changed by two years. Now, cages installed before December 31, 1999 must now be replaced by December 31, 2018, while those installed before December 2001 must now be replaced by December 31, 2020.

"An independent review found that a significant disruption to New Zealand's egg supply and the price of eggs would be almost inevitable with the original transition dates," Guy said. "Amending the dates will give farmers the time they need to get resource consents and build new sheds. This will minimize the risk of disruption to the egg supply and price hikes."

The industry will be required to publicly report each year on key milestones in the phaseout. Reports will include the number of egg farms still using battery cages, and the total size of the battery cage flock. For those farms still using battery cages, additional information will be provided on how many have secured finance for the transition, lodged resource consent applications, had consents approved, built new or altered existing sheds, and installed new equipment.

Some relief

The EPF notes that it has accepted the minister's decision.

"We made it quite clear to the minister and NAWAC that the four-year deadline for older cages was a physical impossibility and the effect would be to either drive many farmers out of business or force them to break the law. The change is simply making the impossible possible," Michael Guthrie, chairman of the EPF, said. "This small adjustment, which involves moving the four-year deadline to six years and the six-year deadline to eight years, makes the transition bearable, though it has to be said that this remains by far the fastest transition period imposed on an egg industry anywhere in the world."

Many of New Zealand's egg farmers are expected to convert to colony farming, which has been endorsed by NAWAC as welfare acceptable, but others may convert to free-range or barn farming. Many could leave the industry altogether, the association notes.

"Our advice to farmers now is to knuckle down and make the transition as prescribed," Guthrie says. "For most cage farmers who produce by far the largest number of eggs in the industry, this transition involves the complete remodeling of their farms and substantial investment in new equipment. This is not for the fainthearted and unfortunately there will be casualties."

Not everybody happy

Despite a degree of consensus between the association and the government, not everybody is happy.

When the code's first proposals were published, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA) commented that they were unacceptable.

"A cage is a cage is a cage," the society said. In its submission to NAWAC's review it said that a caged system of layer hen management can in no way be considered humane - regardless of the enrichments provided. For the industry to spend millions converting to a system that consumers will reject seemed pointless, it said.

"New Zealand's consumers will vote with their wallets as we have seen in Europe, and there will be a diminishing market for caged-bird eggs. Farmers who have invested in expensive colony cages will be left selling an inferior product in a market demanding better and better welfare," said then RNZSPCA national chief executive Robyn Kippenberger. 

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