In September 2017, I was contacted by an anonymous source about a proposed mega farm that would be built in Orini, North Waikato.
The mega farm would produce eggs from 400,000 hens housed indoors, in a new type of system that isn’t well established in New Zealand. The new system, called multi-tiered aviary, produces eggs that can be sold as “cage-free”, not to be confused with free-range.
The company that wants to build this mega multi-tiered aviary farm is New Zealand’s largest egg producer, Mainland Poultry.
After I received this tip-off, I sent an Official Information Act request to the Waikato District Council for Mainland Poultry’s consent application and found that there was significant opposition from those living close to the site of the proposed mega farm.
Neighbours objected to how close the mega farm would be to their boundaries and they didn’t want to live next to an offensive smelling factory farm that would ruin the amenity of their beautiful valley.
With local opposition strong and concerns about the new multi-tiered aviary system, the animal advocacy group I work with, Direct Animal Action, started a petition calling on Waikato District Council to stop the mega farm.
The petition gained almost 35,000 signatures and was presented to Council staff amid a well-attended, peaceful protest following the hearing last December.
Despite the wide show of public and local opposition, Waikato District Council gave Mainland Poultry the green light to build their cage-free mega farm.
This was hugely disappointing for the locals who face the very real prospect of living next to a stinky industrial eyesore. Luckily they are made of strong stuff and have appealed the decision meaning the case may be heard at the Environment Court later this year.
The Council’s decision was also disappointing for those of us at Direct Animal Action because we have seen first-hand what Mainland Poultry’s version of “cage-free” actually looks like. We know it’s simply a adjustment on cages that introduces a number of new and unconsidered animal welfare concerns.
We’d received a tip-off that Mainland Poultry were already operating a smaller scale version of what they wanted to build at Orini on a mega-scale. So in March 2018, we travelled to Dunedin to see the multi-tiered aviary system with our own eyes.
During our investigation we documented tens of thousands of hens stacked from floor to ceiling inside massive industrial scale buildings. While they weren’t confined to cages, what we saw did not look like the idyllic conditions Kiwi’s imagine when they spend their extra hard-earned dollars on cage-free.
Overseas, these types of systems have been called ‘high rises’ for chickens. Studies in the U.S have shown that hens kept in multi-tiered aviaries suffer from increased rates of cannibalism, respiratory disease and broken bones.
As small cages and colony cages phase out, these new types of cage-free systems look set to replace them as the biggest production system within New Zealand’s egg industry.
Disturbingly, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) has given multi-tiered aviaries their seal of approval with no chance for public input.
Direct Animal Action is urging NAWAC to run a public consultation on multi-tiered aviaries so New Zealanders can be informed and have a say on how eggs may be produced here on a large scale in the near future.
While the egg industry may feel they are in a quandary about what move to make next after cages, perhaps they could find inspiration in disruptive innovations emerging overseas that don’t involve animal welfare scandals or irate neighbours?
In the U.S, a company called JUST is working on “obliterating” the egg industry’s use of real animals with their impressive egg substitutes that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The company’s product Beyond Eggs has proved so successful that one of Asia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Li Ka-Shing, invested $23 million into the business and is facilitating a major expansion into the Asian market.
Disruptive innovation has already started impacting the poultry industry here in New Zealand with Sunfed Meats producing ‘chicken-free chicken meat’ that sells so well, there’s often none left on the shelves when I go to buy it at my local supermarkets.
New Zealand’s egg industry is going through a massive transition. The proposed Orini mega farm is emblematic of the quandary this transition presents for the industry.
Will they chose the path of animal welfare scandals and irate neighbours? Or will they go for cutting edge innovation that will shift our society towards greater moral outcomes?
Deirdre Sims is a campaigner with animal advocacy organisation Direct Animal Action.