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Editorial: Battery cages begone

Last updated 05:00 10/12/2012

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OPINION: Just because a decision is being attacked from different extremes doesn't mean it's necessarily a sensible, moderate compromise.

The poultry industry's battery cages are being phased out over 10 years.

That is ridiculously long for a cruel system and it still allows for the continuation of scarcely better colony cages, says Safe executive director Hans Kriek.

No, no, it's a brutally short phase-out, neither practically nor financially achievable, and we should all expect major disruption to egg supplies as a result, says the Egg Producers' Federation chairman Michael Guthrie.

From this we might conclude the Government have found a fair-enough middle ground and that Primary Industries Minister David Carter is standing upon it when he says both scientific evidence and strong public opinion have made it clear that change is necessary, but an immediate ban on battery cages would have an unacceptable impact on egg prices, industry structure and the stability of egg supply.

And after all, he is going by the findings of the independent National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee set up to advise the minister.

But let's not be too phlegmatic about the question of timing. The case against battery cages evokes emotion but no more so than befits a practice that deserves to be recognised as a shame to the nation.

More than 80 per cent of the eggs we buy are laid by 3 million hens living in tightly confined cages housing usually three to five, without any exercise, nor even the ability to stretch their wings.

They suffer foot damage, leg weakness and osteoporosis. More than that, they cannot express the range of normal behaviours, like nesting, perching, scratching, pecking and dustbathing, for which their instincts cry out.

Why a 10-year amble to end that torment? Money. There's no denying that whacking down a single-date ban any time soon would create huge disruption in the egg industry and even under the ambling pace of these reforms, it's reckoned farmers will have increased annual costs of between 10 and 14 per cent that are all-but-certain to wind up with the consumer.

But look, the committee is upfront that its phase-out (the one Mr Guthrie finds so brutal) is calibrated to allow most of the 47 producers to see a return on their investment in those cages. By 2018 more than half of them will still be in use. It will be 2022 before the last of them are gone.

This shabby industry has developed because we permitted it to happen. We like cheap eggs and no-one was forcing us to look squarely at the ugliness of the practices.

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It is easier to blame the regulators, the lawmakers, but let's not deny they were receiving mixed messages from the public - and still are.

Only about 3 per cent of our eggs are produced in barns and about 14 per cent are free range (which means they're in barns with access to outdoors). The more people buy them, the less fowl misery results.

As for colony cages, as things stand, New Zealand has few of them. There's a debate ahead about whether these are tolerable.

They typically house 40 to 60 hens and do meet welfare codes, though the likes of Safe and the Greens argue they shouldn't.

They have secluded nesting areas, perches, a scratching/dustbathing area, and enough room for the birds to (literally) spread their wings every now and then.

Whether or not colony cages have a future, battery cages belong emphatically in the past and should be consigned there more briskly than, it seems, they will be. Most of us can prioritise our household spending to avoid encouraging producers to keep them in use for as long as possible .

- The Southland Times

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