Praise for Tasmania, but more action needed

The Tasmanian government has unveiled plans to phase out battery hens, in a national first for animal welfare, leading all Australian states and territories to end the cruel practice. The move comes amidst calls from Voiceless, the animal protection institute, to the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (Egg Corp) for a massive change to the free range egg industry.

According to Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister, Bryan Green, an immediate ban has been imposed on new battery hen operations, a cap placed on existing pens and a transition plan will be developed to end their use.

Minister Green says, ‘The demand for locally produced eggs, particularly free range, is growing and the industry acknowledges this change and is eager to work with government on a transition.’

According to Animals Australia, the good news doesn’t end there. They claim the Tasmanian government has also vowed to fast-track the phase out of pregnant sow crates by the middle of next year — well before the pork industry’s own target of 2017.

Animals Australia campaigner Lyn White says, ‘This heralds the beginning of the end for two of the cruellest devices ever used to confine animals raised for food.’

What this means for hens: 12 million battery hens suffer in Australian factory farms. An estimated one in six lives in constant pain with a broken bone — a consequence of lack of exercise from living in a space smaller than an A4 sized sheet of paper. No more battery hen farms can be built in Tasmania, and their numbers will soon be restricted.

What this means for pigs: Sow crates are still in operation across Australia and are used to confine a pregnant mother pig so tightly that she cannot even turn around. Tasmania is the first state to phase these out by law.

Meanwhile, claims Voiceless, moves by the Egg Corporation (Corp) to overcrowd free range hens would fail animal protection, small business and consumers alike.

According to Voiceless, legitimate free range farmers keep no more than 1,500 hens per hectare, yet Egg Corp plans to allow 20,000 birds to be crowded into the same amount of space while hijacking the ‘free range’ label to deceptively describe these overcrowded conditions. Voiceless says these new standards would dupe consumers and abuse market power.

Voiceless has called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to refuse this deeply flawed standard. In its submission to the ACCC’s public consultation, the group has warned of animal suffering, consumer deception and concentration of market power if Egg Corp is allowed to redefine the term ‘free range’.

Currently, there are varying standards for the production of free range eggs including those in the Model Code of Practice for Animal Welfare – Domestic Poultry, which sets a maximum stocking density of 1,500 hens per hectare. A maximum of 20,000 hens – as proposed by Egg Corp – exceeds the current standards by 13 times, yet would still be permitted to be labelled as ‘free range’, tricking consumers intent on supporting legitimate free range producers.

‘Egg Corporation’s standard would be in complete opposition to the Model Code and would only create confusion for consumers,’ says Voiceless legal counsel, Ruth Hatten. ‘High stocking densities can force hens to compete for space, resulting in social stress and increased levels of aggression, displayed by way of feather pecking and cannibalism. How can that possibly be considered free range?’

In a survey conducted by Choice earlier this year and included in the Choice Survey on Consumer Expectations of Free Range Egg Labelling Key Findings Report, 60 per cent of respondents said that when buying eggs, it was essential that they be free range. Less than 1 per cent of those respondents thought that Egg Corp’s new standard met their expectations of free range products.

Voiceless is not the only organisation opposing the change. The RSPCA has stated that Egg Corp is not meeting animal welfare standards or consumer expectations.

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