Battery cage eggs will be phased out across Australia, following a welfare assessment by an independent panel.
The federal Department of Agriculture made the announcement on Thursday after what it described as an “extensive process of stakeholder consultation”, as well as an assessment of science and community expectations.
The ban on what are known as “battery cages”, due to their resemblance to the cells of a battery, will take effect no later than 2036.
Meat chickens will also see their welfare improved, with new guidelines requiring them to be provided enrichment.
Also known as broiler hens, they are much heavier than egg chickens and are currently raised in large open sheds.
For the first time, farmers will also be required to give ducks access to water for dunking and bathing.
Animal welfare groups criticise cage phase-out
RSPCA Australia CEO Richard Mussell welcomed the announcement as a "win for the millions of layer hens confined to battery cages".
Other welfare advocates have criticised the timeline for being too slow, with Animals Australia saying it will sentence “up to 55 million hens to a lifetime of suffering” before the changes come into effect.
Humane Society International’s Georgie Dolphin has called on state governments to act sooner. The ACT banned them in 2018.
"The science is clear, and public sentiment is clear, that's why so many corporations and countries have banned cruel cages already,” she said.
Animal Justice Party MP Emma Hurst described battery cages as “cruel” and criticised the phase-out as “prolonged”.
She urged NSW Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders to confirm his state will comply with the new guidelines.
“The former NSW Minister for Agriculture, Adam Marshall, made a rogue declaration that he wouldn’t support a phase out of battery cages in NSW, regardless of the outcome of the national process,” she said.
“Surely the current Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders won’t make the same mistake.”
Minister Saunders did not immediately commit to the new standards, telling Yahoo News Australia the government will now consider their impact.
“NSW will consider the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry alongside any impacts the proposed changes could have on farmers, businesses and importantly consumers," he said.
“The NSW Government will consult with egg producers on the proposed guidelines ahead of any decisions on future changes or timelines for implementation."
Cage eggs by the numbers
Approximately 6.3 billion eggs are produced nationwide annually. In terms of grocery sales, 36 per cent of volume are cage eggs, while 52 per cent free-range.
The price difference between the two options is small, with retailers Coles and Woolworths both selling a dozen cage eggs for $4.20, and their free-range option just 70 cents more.
The biggest interruption will likely be felt by food manufacturers as cage eggs continue to be used extensively as an ingredient in other supermarket products including pasta, mayonnaise and ice cream.
There have been indications that battery cage eggs would be phased out, with a number of countries including New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria having already banned them.
Woolworths announced in 2013 it would remove cage eggs from its shelves by 2018, but later extended its deadline to 2025. Coles has previously announced a phase-out of cage eggs by 2023, while Aldi will do so by 2025.
Consumers have been steadily switching to free-range eggs over the last decade, as expectations about welfare change.
Under the industry’s model code, caged birds are each expected to be given 550cm2 of space and at least 40cm of height.
Chickens are housed in tiers, kept at a constant 23 degrees, and largely protected from diseases like avian influenza in what the industry calls a “highly efficient system”.
NSW Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders and Australian Eggs have been contacted for comment.
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