Caged eggs will be phased out by 2036 under new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines endorsed by state and territory agricultural leaders.

Australia’s agriculture ministers met in Perth on July 13 to adopt the new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry following an eight-year-long regulatory process.

The document sets out how commercial laying hens and other birds grown commercially, including ducks, turkeys, quail and emus, are to be treated and farmed.

As part of the new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry, battery hen eggs will be phased out by 2036, 10 years earlier than requested by the egg industry, with states and territories retaining jurisdiction to decide the timeframe for this transition.

Agriculture ministers noted the need for flexibility for jurisdictions to consider individual implementation issues in consultation with producers across the poultry industry.

The next step is for each jurisdiction to prepare implementation plans which are anticipated to be considered by agriculture ministers later in the year.

“Victoria has endorsed the new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry, and we will continue to work with producers to plan how to best implement these agreed changes,” a state government spokesperson said.

The national update on poultry farming has been met with mixed reactions by egg producers and advocates. You could say some view the reforms as “Egg-streme”.

Chief executive of Egg Farmers of Australia, Melinda Hashimoto, said farmers were divided about the new standards and guidelines for poultry.

“Our free range and barn laid sectors have the green light to expand, but cage egg producers are in limbo with no clear picture about their future in Australia’s egg supply chain,” she said.

“That’s because the ministers voted to end cage eggs but left the phase-out time to each state to decide.

“This could be good news or bad news for producers – depending on how long the states allow cage eggs to continue to be sold.

“Consequently, we need clarity from states so that farmers can plan for their future.”

Australian Alliance for Animals director of policy Jed Goodfellow said the decision lacked the firm commitment sought by advocates.

“After eight long years of debate and deliberation, it’s quite a disappointing outcome because the decision really doesn’t provide a lot of certainty for the Australian community nor the egg industry,” he said.

“The standards outline a very clear phased-out timeline of 2032 to 2036, but the announcement by the ministers is that it will be left to each individual state to determine their own timelines.

“So it doesn’t provide that certainty that all stakeholders were seeking.”

While the independent review of animal welfare standards recommended an end to the use of battery hens by 2036, the industry remains steadfast in its request for a 2046 phase-out deadline.

Ms Hashimoto said she hoped many states would now wait until 2046 to cease cage production, warning that an earlier end to cage eggs would lead to higher egg prices and challenges for farmers.

“If there is any plan to have a phase-out prior to 2046, we would expect that they would provide structural adjustment or exit packages,” she said.

“Certainly, we believe that the price of eggs will rise.”

Leader of The Nationals and Shadow Agriculture Minister David Littleproud added to calls for an extension, calling on the state governments to protect egg farmers amid fears of rising egg prices.

“The state Labor Ministers need to have the courage and conviction to support egg producers and continue with the status quo,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Farmers have made investment decisions worth millions of dollars, predicated on the current guidelines, believing they had until 2046.

“Our egg farmers deserve support, not surprises, from state governments.

“The science in relation to caged eggs isn’t conclusive. We don’t need to rush this process.

“Any changes would effectively be a retrospective decision, and farmers will have to bear the cost, which is unfair and un-Australian. The unintended consequences will also mean higher egg prices for consumers.

“We can use common sense and have more consultation to ensure investment confidence for farmers while also continuing to provide fresh and healthy produce to consumers.”

To clarify, the phase-out of conventional cages doesn’t mean no cages, but rather, bigger cages.

The current minimum space allowance per hen in a cage farming system is 550cm2 per bird, or about 18 hens per m2, which will increase to 750cm2 of usable space per bird if there are two or more birds in a cage or 1000cm2 if one bird is kept in a single cage.

As of this year, all new cages will be required to have nesting areas, access to perches or platforms, and an area where the birds can scratch.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said by 2036, this would be the new standard, but the time frame for phasing out the old cages was up to individual states and territories to implement.

“Some states will be able to do it more quickly than others, and if some states are struggling, that is something we can discuss,” Senator Watt said.

“These standards will allow for the continued use of cages in poultry farming and egg farming, but they won’t be the kind of cages we’re all used to seeing on TV.”

The new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry have seemingly displeased all sides of the caged egg debate.

Australia’s egg industry and its supporters say they need more time to adjust to avoid financial penalties for farmers and consumers. But, animal welfare advocates argue the timeline is too long.

Mr Littleproud warned that any guideline changes would result in devastating financial losses for egg farmers, affecting a third of the nation’s egg supply, with 33 per cent of eggs currently coming from caged chooks.

“Our egg producers made investment decisions of millions of dollars because they believed they had until 2046, and to change that, they’ll have to bear that cost,” he said.

“I fear that, unfortunately, the supermarkets will try to use this if it is imposed, and the cost of the increase will actually be worn by the consumer.”

The state government stated they would work to develop implementation plans for the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry to give producers and consumers further certainty.

“Any impact to egg prices is expected to be marginal, and in the cents, not dollars, and many major food outlets have already committed to phase out the use of caged eggs in the short term,” a state government spokesperson said.

“Animal welfare remains a priority, and we will work with producers if any implementation issues arise.”

Senator Watt said 2036 was a reasonable timeline that gave the industry plenty of time to adjust, adding there won’t be any major price increase according to government modelling, with the updated standards resulting in the average consumer paying about $1.51 more per year.

Supermarket giants Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have all committed to phase out or ban battery cages from their supply chains by 2025.