Around three million battery hens produce almost 93 percent of New Zealand's eggs. They spend their short lives confined to a space no bigger than a piece of A4 paper. We take a look at battery hen farming and ask why the government continues to ignore public opinion that wants battery cages banned.
Next time your buying eggs at the supermarket spare a thought about the hens that produce them.
Unless your buying free range eggs, these eggs are produced by hens living in tiny, cramped cages. In New Zealand there are are more than three million laying hens of which approximately 92% live a miserable life confined to a space no larger than a phone book, some 400-500 square centimetres.
It wasn't always this way. In the first half of the twentieth century , the usual method of keeping laying hens was in small flocks under free range conditions. The hens would usually be locked up for safety in barn at night, but left to roam outside during the day. However there was a move towards indoor housing in the 1940s,followed by a change to battery farm housing.
The poultry industry internationally expanded rapidly during World War Two and the trend towards battery caging increased in the 1950s and 1960s.
As well, there was move toward increased mechanisation and controlled environment systems for battery systems. The result is what we have today - large windowless warehouses with a controlled environment such as artificial lighting.
The battery cages themselves are designed to house groups of hens, usually up to ten birds. The rows of cages are often arranged in tiers.
It's not exaggerating to say that life for a battery hen is hell.
Hens are social animals, naturally choosing to live in small flocks where a stable hierarchy can be maintained. They have a powerful natural urge to build a nest in which to lay eggs, and are driven to dust bathe, scratch, spread their wings, preen, forage for food and to perch.
Battery hens are prevented from doing all of these natural activities. The cages are cramped, barren and devoid of bedding or anything else of comfort or stimulation. There is no space to stretch or flap their wings, no surface soil for dist bathing or food foraging and no straw for nest building.
As a result, hens suffer both physically and psychologically.
Physically they suffer a wide range of problems. Researchers have cataloged a whole range of problems that battery farms suffer. These crippling leg weaknesses due to the lack of movement and severe feather loss due to constant rubbing against the cage walls and the other hens in the cage.
As well battery hens suffer increased fear and distress because of the brutal conditions they are forced to endure.
Most New Zealanders don't like battery farming. Indeed a 2002 Colmar Brunton survey revealed that 79 percent of the respondents said they were prepared to pay more for eggs if that meant hens were no longer housed in battery cages.
Unfortunately public opinion has been ignored by those who make the decision that impact on the lives of hens and other animals.
In 1999 the Animal Welfare Act was passed . Because it wasn't possible to cover the requirements of each animal, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries National Animal Welfare Advisory committee (NAWAC) has formulated separate welfare codes to bring animal care into line with the new act.
For the layered hen code NAWAC received over 100,000 submissions opposing the use of battery cages.
But NAWAC's response to such community concern has been totally inadequate. It has barely acknowledged its own responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act, which states that NAWAC must take public opinion into account when setting animal welfare standards.
In 2004 the then Minister of Agriculture, Jim Sutton, issued a revised welfare code
formulated by NAWAC. All this amounted was increasing the size of cages by a tiny amount by 2014 - no more than the size of two credit cards. This still means that each hen still has a living space of less than an A4 page.
NAWAC recommended delaying until 2009 any decision on the future of battery cages in order to allow time for 'further research'.
But since then NAWAC have made no effort to frame some meaningful research questions and in 2009 it is highly likely that NAWAC will again ignore the studies that show battery hens suffer.
Animal rights campaigners such as the SPCA and SAFE (Save Animals from exploitation) have severely criticized NAWAC for not banning battery cages.
In response to the new revised welfare code, the SPCA commented; 'Through it's lack of resolve, NAWAC has condemned more generations of battery hens to live out their short, unhappy lives in truly hellish conditions.'
But it's no surprise that NAWAC has ignored the calls to ban battery cages. After all the code was largely written by the Egg Producers Federation. It also spent some $700,000 lobbying politicians and NAWAC to ensure that battery hen farming would continue.
New Zealand is falling behind what is happening internationally. The European Union, for example, has commenced a process to phase out battery cages. In Sweden, battery hen cages were banned in 1999. However battery egg producers have refused to make plans to change to non-cage systems;only 15 percent of Sweden laying hens are in non-caged housing. Animal rights campaigners is lobbying the government to enforce the battery cage ban.
And there is reason why battery cages cannot be banned here. The research suggests that would be a short term cost for the egg industry to move to alternative welfare friendly- systems but that this would be negligible compared to the cost of the feed and the birds themselves.
What stands in the way of finally ending the suffering of millions of laying hens is the intransigence of the Egg Producers Federation and NAWAC that has largely acted as a rubber stamp for the demands of the egg producers.
It's time that NAWAC started listening to what the New Zealand public want - no more battery cages.