Egg producers must get cracking

A  new animal welfare code phasing out battery cages for layer hens has Nelson egg producers Gwen and Lloyd Ewing questioning their future in the industry.

The couple - who have built up their business into one of the largest in the South Island, with an annual turnover of $8 million and a staff of 42 - say the move to larger colony cages will cost them $8 million to $9m, and at their age they are reluctant to saddle their family with such a large mortgage.

They say the code means they will either have to completely revamp their cage production operation at Hope, because far fewer birds will be able to be housed in sheds there, shift elsewhere, or shut it down.

Under the code released by the Government earlier this month, no new battery cages are allowed, and all must be gone by 2022.

Layer hens will be allowed to be kept in colony cages, which  give them a little more room to express some normal behaviours. Such cages are bigger, typically housing 40 to 60 birds, and include a secluded nesting area, perches and a scratching area.

However, the move has left groups both for and against the new rules squawking.

Animal welfare groups say the code doesn't go far enough or get rid of cages soon enough, while the Egg Producers Federation says the ''brutal'' phase-out period for battery cages is far too short and will force some poultry farmers out of business, disrupt egg supplies to consumers, and push up  prices.

More than 80 per cent of eggs come from battery hens.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter said scientific evidence and strong public opinion made it clear that the new welfare code was necessary.

''We need alternatives to battery cages.''

He said an immediate total ban would be too disruptive, but a phased approach gave producers time to switch to other systems.

The Ewings support the intent of the code, saying they use cages bigger than what is required, and that 26 per cent of their eggs come from their free range farm at Quail Valley.

But they object to the deadline the Government has set for the end of all battery cages.

After spending millions rehousing their 87,000 hens in larger cages in 2002 and 2005,  the Ewings have 10 years to make the changes, although many other egg producers have a shorter period.

Mrs Ewing - who is on the executive of the Egg Producers Federation and chairs the industry's marketing arm - said almost 40 per cent of the industry by volume had only four years to make the changeover, which was ''not do-able''.

 It was simply not long enough to get all the resource and building consents required, acquire extra land, construct new buildings, and order and install new equipment, she said.

Mrs Ewing said she supported the federation taking legal action in a bid to have the timetable re viewed, saying producers needed at least 15 years.

As it was, the changes were going to cost the industry at least $150m, which was a ''frightening'' sum for the 42 poultry farmers who used cages, Mr Ewing said. 

It would mean a lot of smaller producers would not be able to afford to upgrade, and would close down.

Mrs Ewing said the industry would end up being dominated by two or three corporates. Egg prices would have to rise by at least 15 per cent to pay for the changes.

Mr Ewing said Germany and Switzerland had banned battery cages, but this had left their industries in disarray, and they now imported most of their eggs from countries where cages were still allowed.

''They have exported their conscience.''

The Ewings denied that they were being alarmist or that the industry had been slow to change in the face of rising public opposition to battery cages.

Mrs Ewing said the last welfare code came out in 2005, and producers had been assured that they had until 2014 to switch to more modern cages which gave birds 550sq cm of room each.

Now the rules had changed again, to require colony cages giving hens 750sq cm each, even though many producers had spent heavily on cages with an economic life of 30 years.

The federation had done a lot of work in conjunction with the National Animal Welfare Advisory  Committee (Nawac), which had developed the new code for the Government, but was never warned that the implementation dates would be so short, she said.

The Ewings said it appeared that the Government had bowed to pressure from animal welfare groups, some of which used ''immoral'' tactics to portray a misleading picture of the industry.

Egg producers were sick of ''everything we have said in the past being taken, twisted and thrown back and we have been made to look bad'', Mrs Ewing said.

It was ''pretty devastating'' to spend 32 years building a business only to have it put at risk by the new code, she said.

They had yet to decide what to do, but would have to ''start from scratch'' if they upgraded at Hope, and would have to reduce the number of hens there.

Relying solely on free range farming was not viable, as the costs were much higher and the returns lower, and there were a lot of producers struggling to make a go of it, she said.

Also, the market for barn-raised eggs was not well understood by consumers and had not developed much, which meant producers were better off offering consumers a range of eggs.

The Ewings said that while  people might not like cage farming, it had not changed their buying habits, with most opting for cheaper cage eggs over more expensive free range ones.

Mrs Ewing said consumers were ''more concerned about feeding their family than siding with animal welfare people''.

However, Hans Kriek, executive director of animal rights group Safe, said the decision not to immediately ban all cages would ''appal all New Zealanders who care about animal welfare''.

''This is a ridiculously long phase-out period for a system universally regarded as cruel.

''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.

Nawac chairman John Hellstrom said the new code contained minimum standards and best practices to encourage the highest standards of animal husbandry, care and handling.

The code covered 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.

''Colony cages are an acceptable option under the code because they allow hens to display a range of normal behaviours.''