BIG egg says a self-imposed cap on battery cage sizes is proof farmers aren’t yolking around with consumer expectations.
But animal welfare groups say the temporary move won’t stave off the inevitable.
With public submissions now closed on proposed national poultry welfare standards, RSPCA says the writing is on the wall for caged eggs.
Meanwhile, the industry feeding Australians more than 15 million eggs a day said the bruising three-month welfare debate had taken its toll, with producers reportedly copping personal abuse from some opponents and, in at least one case, their children had been bullied.
On Monday, in response to consumer concerns, Egg Farmers Australia announced any new battery cages must now be a bigger model with a perch and nesting box that houses 20 to 40 hens.
The new cages would have the same A4-sized amount of space per hen as current cages that house 5 to 10 birds.
RSPCA’s senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow said it was a token gesture that would contrast against ‘the vast majority’ of 165,000 submissions made to Animal Health Australia he predicted would call for stronger poultry welfare standards.
Egg Farmers chief executive John Dunn said a regulatory cap was a continuation of industry’s incremental change.
Mr Dunn said many farmers had been bruised during the submission process.
“There a lot of tired eyes,” he said.
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“The criticism has been relentless and often quite pointed. One of my guys has a young daughter that had been bullied at school. It’s one of those things where she shared what her dad did for a living. I don’t blame the kids, because it’s the nature of the debate, it’s unfortunately what it has become.
“The truth of the matter is that many in this industry have been afraid to open up because of the attacks they think they’ll get - but we’ve put it aside and been able to do that.
“As such, 90 per cent of people we’ve taken on farm over the past 90 days have responded well to being educated about what really goes on.”
“The farmers won’t say it but I will say it for them: They don’t deserve the way they’ve been treated.”
Consumer expectations changing
RSPCA has led the push to phase out battery cages and “better reflect the current scientific evidence and views of the Australian community”.
Earlier this month Dr Goodfellow shared survey data that showed between 72pc and 82pc of rural and regional Australians were concerned about battery cages, and 80pc to 83pc wanted battery cages phased out.
“Cage egg industry lobbyists are very fond of saying that opposition to cruel battery cages comes mostly from people in the cities, who don’t understand the realities of farming. That’s simply not true,” he said.
The RSPCA view is that the Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement was severely lacking and in some parts misleading, and could not be relied upon to recommend an animal welfare policy decision.
What’s more, the organisation has fears over NSW government’s influence on the reforms – something the Department of Primary Industries has strongly refuted.
Instead of choosing one of the options presented in the Regulatory Impact Statement, RSPCA proposed its own option that included a regulated phase out of cages, reduced stocking densities, as well as nests, perches and scratch posts for all chicken layers and a ban on beak trimming except for exceptional circumstances.
Mr Dunn said phasing out cages over a decade would cost the industry $1.5 billion, and raise the price of eggs by 30pc – at least $1 per carton.
“It means Australians will be paying $200 million more for eggs. And there is not going to be an even distribution of that cost,” he said. “The people bearing the cost are going to be the people looking for the most affordable source of protein.
“There was plenty of debate around a 10pc GST on fresh food. Right now we’re having a debate on a 30pc rise on the most affordable protein going around. And somehow, that is being overlooked and not accounted for.
“Why is (a cage egg ban) is necessary where farmers are committed to changing and investing and responding to whatever the market may hold?”
Mr Dunn said industry would continue to invest and respond to rising demand for free-range eggs.
He said $500 million had been invested upgrading cage systems since the 2002 review of the model code.
“But these investments take time to materialise. They take time to plan.”
“What we don’t want to ignore is that 25pc of the public only ever buy caged eggs. And 70pc of caged eggs are bought by people earning below the average wage.
“Our message to those people is that that is okay. The farmer who produced those eggs cares about his hens.”
Mr Goodfellow said it was wrong to advertise battery cages “as a necessary evil” in order to provide an affordable source of protein for lower-income earners.
He said 77pc of Australians earning more than $156,000 a year were concerned or very concerned about egg-laying hens being kept in cages, while the number was 75pc for Australians earning under $36,399 a year.
About 165,000 submissions on the new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry will be reviewed by an independent consultant, who will deliver a report with key findings to the Animal Welfare Task Group, which includes representatives from all government jurisdictions.
A revised welfare standards document will be developed under the direction of the Group, which will then be provided to industry and welfare stakeholders for review.
The independent consultant’s report and the major submissions will be available in June 2018 on the Animal Welfare Standards Poultry website.