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Battle of the barns

Animal welfare groups can rightly claim a victory over egg producers with the phasing out of battery cages, but a new fight is developing over the replacement – barn-laid eggs. Mark Jennings reports.

A few months ago, a group of animal welfare activists from Auckland boarded a plane and flew south to Dunedin.

Armed with a camera they drove north up SH1 for about an hour to an egg farm owned by New Zealand’s biggest egg producer, Mainland Poultry.

In the middle of the night the activists walked across farmland near Hampden, climbed over fences and squeezed through a door into a shed containing thousands of layer hens.

They believed they had found what they were looking for.

“We had a tip-off that Mainland was conducting a small-scale trial of a new production method called multi-tiered aviaries. It is an intensive system where hens are stacked into barns, there are no cages but in many ways, it is nearly as bad as cages,” said Deirdre Sims of Direct Animal Action.

DAA has been waging war on caged egg producers for some time but Mainland is its main target because the company has plans to build a huge indoor (barn) egg-laying farm in Orini in North Waikato.

“This will be like a high-rise for hens,” Sims told Newsroom.

Mainland is dismissive of Sims' claim. 

“We haven’t been carrying out a trial. It’s more correct to say we’re operating commercial farms in both barn and aviary systems…

"What we’ve learnt is that the new aviary system is a vast improvement over the older single-level system.” 

The stakes are high for both sides.

“Mainland's multi-tiered aviaries will enable them to sell technically cage-free eggs in supermarkets but it’s an intensive system that does not represent what New Zealanders imagine when they choose to buy cage-free eggs.”

The egg industry is undergoing massive change as the supermarkets, driven by consumer sentiment, flex their purchasing muscle. 

The two big supermarket chains, Countdown and Foodstuffs, control 53 percent of the egg market and their decision to phase out 'cage' eggs is forcing producers to change – or leave – the industry.

The problem facing farmers is how to find a way to produce cage-free eggs at the price point demanded by supermarkets and many consumers whose household economics trump animal welfare concerns.

This puts Mainland’s proposed farm at Orini firmly in the spotlight.

Mainland’s original resource application to the Waikato District Council shows that it planned to build 17 sheds to house a total of 800,000 birds.

A revised application filed recently shows Mainland had scaled back the number sheds to six, housing about 400,000 hens. 

According to Sims, the company hopes the reduction will mute the opposition from local residents.

“I think they are hoping this will see the outcry die down and later when they have been going for a while they will look to expand to the original size.”

Sims and Mainland’s managing director Michael Guthrie have already been involved in a war of words when both were interviewed by Stuff.co.nz in September 2017.

Sims said the original plans submitted to the Waikato District Council specified colony as well as aviary systems.

Colony is a type of cage but it is bigger than a battery cage.

However, Guthrie told Stuff that Mainland had never intended to use cages.

"This is where animal welfare people stir up a lot of trouble. It was never a colony farm – it was never going to be – so they are totally mistaken."

Sims disagreed.

"The  original documents I got talk very specifically about colony and aviary, unless they have changed their tune because of the Foodstuffs announcement.”

Newsroom sought clarification on the issue from Mainland which confirmed its original proposal did include a mix of colony cages and barn housing “whereas under our new plan, it is solely barn, hence the reduction in numbers. We are making up the balance with additional free-range farms on other sites."

Asked if the changes were due to opposition from locals and animal welfare groups, Mainland said that wasn’t the case.

“No, we had always considered being 100 percent barn. What convinced us to move solely to barn was the commitments made by the supermarkets to source only cage-free eggs.”

“The birds at the Mainland site where we filmed were pretty crammed in and considering the industry wants an increased stocking density, we're even more concerned."

Mainland’s Guthrie said barns with multi-level aviaries like those proposed for Orini, which will have three tiers, are a major improvement on single level barns.

"Animal behaviourists have concluded that hens that are not confined in cages prefer to roost at various heights. Chickens are descended from jungle fowl and roosting at height is an innate behavioural trait that provides a sense of security, as it does in the wild. This has led to the development of the aviary barn system, which is now widely used throughout Europe and the UK. These regions are globally recognised as being at the forefront of animal welfare developments in the poultry industry.

"Our own experience reinforces this. We are operating both single-level and aviary housing on our free-range farms. The overall health and robustness of the birds in the aviary system is better and this is reflected in the mortality figures, which is the ultimate measure of welfare. In the aviary housing, mortality is one third less.”

Sims said her group is working with Orini locals to fight the massive farm and wants the Waikato District Council to make resource consent applications notifiable so the public can have a say. 

Neighbours claim the company underestimated the farm's impact on the area.

Sims said the use of multi-tiered aviaries hasn't been properly considered by our animal welfare regulators.

“Overseas research shows there are welfare issues including increased instances of cannibalism," she said.

“Mainland's multi-tiered aviaries will enable them to sell technically cage-free eggs in supermarkets but it’s an intensive system that does not represent what New Zealanders imagine when they choose to buy cage-free eggs.”

Sims told Newsroom she believed Mainland also wants to increase the number of birds allowed per square metre so it could make the use of aviary systems more profitable.

“We've got leaked information that Poultry Industry Association New Zealand, on behalf of the Egg Producers Federation (headed by Mainland’s Michael Guthrie), are currently lobbying National Animal Welfare Committee (NAWAC) behind the scenes to increase stocking density for multi-tiered aviaries - increasing profits but vastly decreasing welfare. 

“The birds at the Mainland site where we filmed were pretty crammed in and considering the industry wants an increased stocking density, we're even more concerned."

Currently New Zealand egg farmers can have seven birds per square metre.  

The rate in most European countries is nine, while in Germany it can be up to 18. 

Michael Brooks, executive director of the Egg Producers Federation, confirmed to Newsroom the industry was looking at density stocking rates but said the producers were not lobbying behind the scenes.

He said it hoped to present a “science paper” to NAWAC in two weeks’ time.

“We have sought independent scientific advice from here and overseas because our stocking rates don’t align with best practice in other countries.

“They were set by NAWAC in 2012 and we need to know how that decision was reached and why it is so out of alignment.

"Barns were the smallest niche back then, now they are going to become the biggest niche.”

Newsroom asked Brooks if operators like Mainland were pushing the idea of high stocking densities because barn systems were currently not as profitable as caged ones.

“That is such an emotional topic, but of course that (profit) is an element to it.”

Mainland’s view on stocking levels is more direct. It told Newsroom it wants nine birds per square metre instead of the current seven.

“Historically, the seven bird limit was based on single-level housing, where the birds could only move horizontally and not vertically."

If Mainland can get NAWAC to agree it would be a significant victory for the barn egg producers – and the prospects of its own giant Orini proposal.

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