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Two years ago, I was invited by the Egg Producers Federation to have a look at some new ''colony'' cages that Mainland Poultry had installed in its huge facility outside Dunedin.
The Government is proposing to replace battery hen cages with these new colony cage systems under its new Code of Welfare. It has announced that within a decade all egg producers will have to switch from battery hen cages to colony cages instead. I am still not quite sure why I was invited to look at the new colony cages - especially since the industry has since refused all media requests to see them. Perhaps they hoped that I would be impressed by the new, so-called ''enriched'' cages and would endorse them as being a great improvement on battery hen cages.
But instead of being impressed, I was horrified. Inside the massive, artificially lit, industrial shed I visited, 45,000 hens were housed in wire cages that were piled on top of each other, from floor to ceiling, as far as the eye could see. It looked a grotesque, sterile, noisy and nightmarish environment for hens to spend their lives in.
At first glance, the cages looked no different from the battery hen cages I had been shown in the shed next door.
But on closer inspection, there were some small differences. The cages were larger - about 3m in length. But instead of three to four hens in a battery cage, there were 60 hens in each cage - which means that each hen has only marginally more than an A4 sheet of paper worth of floor space There was a metal bar, a few centimetres off the floor, where hens could perch. And a piece of black rubber, about the size of a door-mat, with some flaps around it, at one end of the cage, where the 60 hens could compete to lay their eggs. At the other end of the cage there was another piece of black rubber where hens are supposedly able to ''dust bathe''.
But that was all. Otherwise they were the same as the sterile battery hen cages next door. The hens were still forced to stand on sloping wire floors, and develop crippling feet injuries and foot deformities as a result. They were still unable to exercise, run or fly, and suffer from brittle bones, osteoporosis and bone breakages and fractures as a result. Many also suffer feather loss and sore spots on their bodies, as a result of rubbing on the wire cages.
The Government spin machine would have us believe that these new colony cage systems are a humane and acceptable way of farming hens.
Let me assure you, they are not. You only have to watch a hen in its natural surroundings - communicating with its own family, having dust baths, scratching around for food, sunbathing and grooming to realise how unnatural life inside a cage must be, where they cannot satisfy their basic need to exercise, search for food, be part of a family, or look after their young. Hens are curious and sociable creatures, with a surprising intelligence, and their own language and way of communicating with each other. Scientists have identified 25 to 30 distinct calls that hens have, and say they could have many more. They respond very differently to large and small predators, and there are all sorts of anecdotes about the cleverness of hens.
So, imagine how they must feel when they are locked up inside cages, even colony cages, for all of their lives.
Fortunately, surveys show that most New Zealanders oppose the practice of keeping hens in cages - especially when there are perfectly acceptable ways of raising hens on free-range farms or barns.
Most New Zealanders are not going to be conned into thinking that colony cages are any more acceptable than battery hen cages. That's why it would be a huge, strategic and costly mistake for egg producers to invest in the new colony cage systems. The Egg Producers Federation claims it would cost $3.5 million for an egg producer to convert battery cages into colony cages.
That's a big investment to make - especially as it would probably be a futile one, because egg producers will inevitably be forced by public opinion to get rid of these new caged systems as well.
It would be far more prudent and sensible for egg producers to listen to public opinion and switch to barn and free-range systems instead of investing in new caged systems. Let's hope they realise this, even if the Government doesn't.
- Sue Kedgley is a freelance writer, columnist and consumer advocate. She was a Green Party MP from 1999 to 2011.