Battery cages for egg-laying hens will be phased out under a new code of animal welfare released by the Government.
But hens will still be able to be kept in larger cages known as colony cages, which are still controversial and may or may not give them outdoor access.
The announcement has sent feathers flying, with groups both for and against the new rules. Animal welfare group SAFE said the code does not go far enough and does not get rid of cages soon enough.
The Egg Producers Federation said the phase-out period for battery cages is "extremely short" and will force some poultry farmers out of business, disrupting egg supply for consumers.
Under the new Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare, released by Primary Industries Minister David Carter, no new battery cages can be installed by egg producers from tomorrow.
A staged phase-out of existing cages will also begin, with all battery cages to be prohibited in 10 years, by 2022.
"Scientific evidence and strong public opinion have made it clear that change is necessary. We need alternatives to battery cages," Mr Carter said.
Layer hens will be allowed to be kept in colony cages, which meet the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, he said, and in barns or free-range systems.
An immediate total ban on battery cages was not possible, as it would have an "unacceptable impact on egg prices, industry structure and the stability of egg supply", Mr Carter said.
"The phased approach balances the welfare of layer hens with the time needed for producers to transition to other systems."
More than 80 per cent of New Zealand eggs are currently laid in battery cages. Under the new code, about 45 per cent of battery cages will be gone in six years, by 2018.
SAFE executive director Hans Kriek said the decision not to immediately ban all hen cages would "appall all New Zealanders who care about animal welfare".
“This is a ridiculously long phase-out period for a system universally regarded as cruel, and is much longer than what is expected by the New Zealand public who want these cages banned now.
“Colony cages are condemned by international animal welfare agencies as inadequate and cruel so why allow these barbaric systems to become established here?”
SAFE would step up its campaign against caged hen farming, and would encourage shoppers to boycott cage-farmed eggs, Mr Kriek said.
Egg Producers Federation chairman Michael Guthrie said the proposed phase-out period for battery cages would be four to six years in practical terms, compared to the 10 years implied by the final deadline of 2022.
This would be impossible to achieve both practically and financially for the 42 poultry farmers in New Zealand who use battery cages.
Moving to colony farming was expected to cost them more than $3.5 million each, he said, and moving to free-range farming even more. The federation had formally notified the Minister it expected "major disruption" to the egg supply as a result of the “brutal phase-out time”, Mr Guthrie said.
The code was developed by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which provides animal welfare advice to the Minister.
Committee chairman John Hellstrom said the new code contains minimum standards and best practices to encourage the highest standards of animal husbandry, care and handling.
The code covers the full range of hen husbandry topics, including food, water, shelter and health.
"Battery cages house three to five hens and restrict hens from expressing a range of normal behaviours," Dr Hellstrom said.
"The new code will ensure that hens live in an environment that meets their welfare needs and lets them carry out a range of normal behaviours, such as perching, pecking and scratching.
"Colony cages are an acceptable option under the code because they allow hens to display a range of normal behaviours. Colony cages are bigger, typically housing 40-60 birds, and include a secluded nesting area, perches and a scratching area."
The code replaces the existing 2005 code of welfare for layer hens.
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