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Egg-cellent - It’s Easter! But Where Does Your Egg Come From?

It was great news, years in the making when from 1st January 2023, Aotearoa banned the battery cages that hens used to live in. But from then on, there’s also been some blurring of communications combined with labelling that does not clearly state, "from a hen that lived her life in a colony cage." Arguably, this is a misinformation campaign, aimed at making consumers believe that no hens live in cages. And that, egg-lovers, is just not true!

Dr Helen Beattie, Managing Director of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa (VAWA) and former Chief Veterinary Officer at the NZ Veterinary Association, explains in more detail:

"Until this year, millions of layer hens in New Zealand lived in battery cages. Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa (VAWA) celebrated the End of the NZ’s Battery Cage Age, as did many other animal welfare advocates, and New Zealanders.

But - and yes, there’s a but - at the same time, many Kiwis don’t know that colony cages still exist and house about a third of our layer hens. While the living conditions for the hens are better in colony cages, hens still can’t express their normal behaviours. Anyone who knows chickens knows they love to dust bathe, scratch the ground and peck at the many things that pique their interest. These are their hardwired behaviours."

In a colony cage there are around 60 birds, with cages stacked on top of each other. Space wise, each chook has an area a bit bigger than an A4 piece of paper. Some enrichments such as scratch pads and roosts are provided, but it’s a long way from what a free-ranging chicken would experience. It’s therefore hard to pick out many positive welfare experiences in a colony cage as there are simply so few.

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So let’s be very clear and fair to NZ consumers - about a third of New Zealand’s chickens still live in cages.

And it’s understandable if you are confused or didn’t know this. It’s hard to get the full picture when egg cartons are often labelled as "colony laid" or "fresh colony eggs." The labelling deliberately avoids use of the word "cage" though ‘colony’ does indicate the hens live in ‘groups’. It is worth noting that they lived in groups when they were in battery cages too - just smaller groups and with less space. So unless an egg-lover understands the farming systems used in New Zealand, it’s easy to miss that where marketing states ‘colony’-then-insert-anything here, it ultimately means ‘colony cage’ with marginal improvements in the hens’ lives.

So what to do and what you can do as a consumer?

Firstly, it’s really important that those buying eggs understand the provenance of their food. For this to be achieved, there needs to be clear labelling on egg cartons and accurate communication from those representing egg producers. That way journalists can be sure they too are given the right information and then report accurately on it.

Then, shop ‘free range’, whenever you have the chance. With the current cost-of-living pressures on many New Zealanders, it’s understandable that this might not be possible. But when you can, please do, as it helps to create demand and reduce the cost for other consumers. Buy ‘SPCA Certified’ for a guarantee of cage-free eggs - these are available at all major supermarkets.

Banning battery cages was a good step, and it would now be egg-cellent to see the Egg Producers Federation express a clear strategy on how they will transition away from colony cages. There is a huge international "Ban the Cage Age" movement going on - cages will go, that much is clear. It would be so much better for farmers to have a clear strategy to get them to the future state of hen farming and it’d be great to hear about this plan from the sector leaders. Because just like consumers, our farmers must not be misled. They need clarity on how to future proof their livelihoods.

In the short term, a reasonable goal is to ensure there is clear messaging and labelling for eggs, so the egg lovers know what they are buying and can make choices where they can.

VAWA has joined many other organisations who oppose the caging of layer hens and are calling for consistent and clear labelling. SPCA, World Animal Protection, the New Zealand Animal Law Association, HUHA, Aotearoa Liberation League and Animals Aotearoa cosigned an open letter this week to call for correct labelling on eggs.

There are many views within this group about animals and their use, but these organisations all agree that:

1. Colony cages do not meet the animal welfare needs of hens.

2. Labelling of eggs and reporting on how hens are kept in egg production systems must be accurate.

Happy Easter. Egg well (and don’t feed chocolate to dogs).

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