Battery cages are completely barren – Hens in battery cages experience extreme confinement and behavioural restriction, without enough space to even stretch their wings. Due to the inability to walk, flap their wings, or perch, hens in battery cages suffer very poor muscle and bone strength, bone fractures, frustration, abnormal behaviours, and poor welfare.
The ability to perform normal behaviours is central to positive welfare in poultry. Many scientific studies have concluded that good welfare cannot be achieved in battery cages. The whole of the European Union and the United Kingdom have legally phased out battery cages, and Canada and New Zealand are currently phasing them out based on scientific reviews.
For an industry to be sustainable it needs to be able to adapt to changing market demands. In Australia, more and more people have been buying cage-free eggs at the supermarket over the past 5 years. Seven out of ten consumers are concerned about battery cages, and many consumers and businesses are already choosing cage-free eggs. In fact, fresh cage-free eggs now represent the highest value to the egg industry, in terms of grocery sales.
Despite this, more than 5 million layer hens, around a third of all layer hens in Australia, are still confined to battery cages since many of these eggs are still being used in manufacturing and food services.
Since consumers are increasingly demanding eggs which are not from hens in battery cages, the egg industry and government need to respond to this shift in demand and public concern. Given that this change in demand doesn’t happen overnight, there is no expectation that producers would need to change overnight. A phase out of battery cages can be done over a controlled and appropriate timeline, to allow producers to make the necessary changes to their infrastructure.
Due to the increasing trend in the purchase of cage-free eggs (particularly free range), many producers have been able to change or expand existing systems to cater to this demand. Ahead of the European Union ban on battery cages from 2012, the RSPCA in the United Kingdom commissioned independent research that showed converting from conventional cage production to a multi-tier aviary system (in which birds are able to move across multiple levels within a shed) would allow egg producers to remain commercially competitive compared to furnished cage systems.
Ensuring sustainable supply requires planning, no matter what system is used. Committing now to a controlled phase-out of battery cages will provide the certainty and consistency that producers need to plan ahead. With the current review of the minimum poultry welfare standards, (http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au), now is the first real opportunity in approximately 15 years to legislate a phase out of battery cages.
Now is the time for the egg industry and legislators to lead a phase out of battery cages on achievable terms.