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Colony cages: the struggle continues for chickens

12 January 2023

Many New Zealanders have noticed an alarming absence of eggs on the shelves in their local supermarket. This nationwide shortage follows a total ban on battery cages coming into effect at the start of the year, but – contrary to many people’s understanding – restrictive cages are still being used. Right now, approximately one third of egg-laying hens in our country are being farmed in “colony” cages.

Colony cages: the struggle continues for chickens

In 2012, the government announced a ban on battery cages for layer hens, with a 10-year phase-out period to allow the industry time to adequately transition. On 1 January this year, the ban came into effect, making battery cages illegal, and marking a victory for the approximately 3.9 million layer hens in New Zealand.

While many New Zealanders celebrated this milestone alongside SPCA, what many may not realise is that a great number of layer hens are still being kept in cages, just one of a different kind.

What are colony cages?

While larger than battery cages, colony cages still force hens into cramped metal spaces that do not allow the birds to display normal behaviour, or have positive welfare experiences.

Each colony cage houses around 60 birds and the cages are stacked on top of each other inside barns – just like battery cages before them.

Furthermore, each hen confined to colony cages has approximately 750 square centimetres to live out her entire life. This is just a bit larger than an A4 sheet of paper. Hens kept in these cages cannot properly dust bathe, range or forage, which hens are naturally driven to do.

The egg industry lobbied to be permitted to build colony cages even once the ban on battery cages was due to come into effect, and the Government allowed this, leading many farmers to invest in this replacement method of housing layer hens.

But predictably, New Zealanders have made it clear that we do not support the caging of hens. Major supermarkets have pledged to phase out the sale of caged eggs on shelves, such as the Woolworths Group to phase it out by the end of 2025 nationwide, and Foodstuffs (NZ) by the end of 2027.

Where does SPCA stand on colony cages?

SPCA totally opposes farming hens within colony cages. The Animal Welfare Act states that animals must be provided the opportunity to express normal behaviours. For hens, that means scratching, dust bathing and foraging. While the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) argues that colony cages allow this by providing perches and scratch pads, SPCA strongly disagrees.

Colony cages are little better than the battery cages they were intended to replace. SPCA uses an evidence-based approach to evaluating animal welfare and asserts that, given the Animal Welfare Act 1999 is based on the “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare, a restrictive cage can never provide for an animals’ behavioural needs.

The egg industry in New Zealand has a duty to meet the basic needs of hens. Colony cages do not do this. You can see photos of colony cages in use in New Zealand here to get an idea of the current reality for hens.

SPCA is not alone in this view. Responding to the ever-increasing consumer attention on the process by which eggs arrive on the shelves, many retailers are stopping the sale of eggs laid in colony cage systems.

It is important for both industry and government to be seen taking the lead to improve layer hen welfare – helping our farmers to move out of colony cage use. Based on what is happening in other parts of the world, these colony cages will likely become obsolete. Banning battery cages while allowing colony cages simply is not good enough for hens, or the farmers.

SPCA will continue to advocate for birds who are continuing to suffer under this system of farming. We will continue to advocate for an end to colony cage use in New Zealand altogether.

What can you do to help?

There is strength in numbers, and consumers have more power than they realise.

Here at SPCA, we envision chickens living in farms which provide animals with a good life and opportunities for positive welfare. We know this would take time and that we need to support farmers to achieve these outcomes, which is why we try to raise the bar for animals through strategies such as our farm assurance programme, SPCA Certified. This is where you can help.

When purchasing eggs, ensure that you are buying from systems that prioritise animal welfare. An easy way to do this is to look for the SPCA Certified logo. Eggs certified by us are guaranteed to be higher welfare, and are available at all major supermarkets.

Not only does making this decision mean you are helping hens, but you are supporting farmers who are getting on with raising the bar for animal welfare in New Zealand.

Be sure to keep an eye on SPCA’s website and social media channels to be informed of windows where animal welfare standards are open for public consultation. This means you can make your voice heard by Government, and use your voice for the layer hens that don’t have one.

Free range layer hens for SPCA Certified
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