16 August 2018 | Online since 2003

30 January 2018

Scandal over Australian welfare standards

The Government of Western Australia has threatened to pull out of the proposed standards.

The Australian egg industry has become embroiled in a political battle following claims on network television that Government bureaucrats colluded with industry representatives to prevent battery cages being banned.

Proposed new welfare standards for laying hens in Australia have already been branded "an embarrassment" by RSPCA Australia and "a waste of time" by Phil Westwood, an egg producer and former president of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia. The proposed new standards are out for consultation.

The television channel ABC now says Government documents suggest that bureaucrats at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries colluded with egg farmers to prevent battery cages being outlawed under the proposals. It claims that bureaucrats held secret discussions with egg industry representatives to prevent moves to outlaw battery cages in Australia. Another Australian state - Western Australia - is now threatening to pull out of the process.

Jed Goodfellow, policy officer RSPCA Australia, said, "It's really disappointing. The process has been completely stage managed behind the scenes...”

For the last two years the industry has been working with government and welfare groups towards new Australian standards for the treatment of poultry. ABC says it was widely expected that this process would lead to a ban on battery cages. However, the recently released draft standards - a document that is nearly 70 pages long and covers standards for both layers and broilers, as well as other birds - contains no mention of banning battery cages.

Although the plan is for the new standards to be adopted nationwide, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries is responsible for drafting the new rules. The state has the most caged hens in Australia and welfare campaigners say the industry has undue influence over policy makers.

ABC says documents released under a freedom of information request show that Steven Atkinson, the independent chairman of the group charged with advising on the development of the new standards, attended a private meeting with the poultry industry even before his endorsement as independent chairman. ABC says the FOI documents shows that Steven Atkinson reassured egg farmers that "banning cages would not be the remit" of the process.

Jed Goodfellow, policy officer RSPCA Australia, said, "It's really disappointing.

The process has been completely stage managed behind the scenes between the leaders of the poultry industries and the relevant state Government responsible for this process to push the standards through as quickly as possible with as little change as possible."

He said, "These meetings they have been having with the poultry industries should have been disclosed to other stakeholders in the process.

"The extent they have gone to to strategise about the way in which the standards would be developed in the absence of other stakeholders like animal welfare groups is completely inappropriate.

"We had suspicions based upon the way the process was being conducted that this was going on behind the scenes but this was the first time that we had documentary evidence to show the extent of that collusion behind the scenes."

He said, "Right from the start, from the very first stakeholder advisory group meeting, we were quite alarmed when the so-called independent chair said to the stakeholders in the room that certain issues would not be on the table for discussion, including the continued use of the battery cage system. Collusion is an appropriate way to describe what has been going on in this process."

Glenys Oogjes, chief executive of Animals Australia, said, "There is collusion between those involved in the process and particularly the cage egg industry and the Government department putting these codes together."

ABC says Steven Atkinson admitted that the meeting had taken place but denied that his position as independent chairman had been compromised. John Dunn, chief executive of Egg Farmers of Australia, rejected any suggestion that his industry had unduly influenced policymakers. "If there is some benefit that has been derived by the egg farming industry as a result of this supposed collusion I am completely unaware of it," he said.

"If there are allegations that this process has been somehow corrupted then I think the welfare lobby has really jumped the shark. Allegations of this nature are serious and as yet I would suggest that, from the information I have, unfounded."

He said, "We understand that cages and caged egg production is a concern for some people in the community. What I can say on behalf of Egg Farmers of Australia is that we are listening and we want to hear more."

New South Wales chief vet Dr Christine Middlemiss refused to comment on why Steven Atkinson had met industry before his endorsement as chairman. However, she insisted that her department had followed normal procedures. "We are following the normal part of the national standard process. My staff have meetings with a number of different people across the spectrum as part of their normal day-to-day business, taking into account views from different groups. It's part of the ongoing process, so meetings with industry, meetings with welfare are a standard part of our daily business," she said.

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries issued a statement following the ABC report. It read, "The meetings referred to by the ABC were not organised by the NSW Government, but were arranged by Animal Health Australia, the body in charge, to ensure the industries to be impacted by proposed standards were consulted. Importantly, these meetings were known to animal welfare groups.

"Animals Australia were participants in of one of these meetings with industry representatives in October 2015. Animal Health Australia also arranged similar meetings with groups like RSPCA who they met with in September 2015.

"A list of factual errors in the ABC 7.30 story (21 December 2017) were provided by DPI to the ABC prior to the story going to air, unfortunately they choose not to correct these.

"NSW is home to the country’s largest caged egg industry and also the largest free range industry - which provides consumers with choice.

"We are 25 days into a 90-day consultation period and we encourage all stakeholders to have their say."

However, the Government of Western Australia has threatened to pull out of the proposed standards. It said in a statement that it had reiterated its concerns with the draft guidelines following the ABC report. "The standards, drafted in a process led by the New South Wales Government, do little to improve conditions for egg-laying chickens and are not based on modern animal welfare science, as reflected in the Victorian Government's farmed bird welfare science review," it said.

The statement said the ABC report highlighted the need for an independent statutory body to oversee drafting and enforcement of animal welfare standards at a national level. It said Western Australia Agriculture and Food Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, would host a round table discussion with the state's industry and animal welfare stakeholders whilst the draft standards were out for public consultation.

If the Western Australian Government's concerns were not adequately resolved following the national public consultation process, the state would not adopt the final standards and guidelines, it said.

Alannah MacTiernan said, "Community standards on conditions for egg laying chickens are changing and industry standards must change with this.

"While the WA Government's strong preference would be to support national standards and guidelines, we will not adopt sub-par standards that do not reflect modern science and community attitudes.

"We are bringing together industry and animal welfare representatives to chart a course forward for WA."

Battery cages were banned in the United Kingdom and throughout the European Union at the beginning of 2012.


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