Animal law in the spotlight: Victoria's factory farming bill

Last week, the Victorian Greens introduced the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment (Domestic Fowl and Pigs) and Food Amendment (Free-range Eggs) Bill 2014 (the Bill) into state parliament.

The Bill proposes to ban battery cages, sow stalls and the debeaking of hens. It also proposes to clarify the meaning of ‘free range’ for the purposes of egg production.

Introducing the Bill, Greens animal welfare spokesperson Sue Pennicuik said that “present laws are failing farm animals which are subject to cruel and unnecessary practices”. 

If the Bill is passed, Victoria will become the second state or territory in Australia to legally ban these methods following recent reforms in ACT.

The cruellest methods of factory farming

As with the ACT Factory Farming Bill, the Victorian Bill aims to prohibit some of factory farming’s cruellest practices:

Battery cages

Battery cages are used to permanently confine egg-laying hens to a space little more than an A4 sized piece of paper. Inside these cages, hens are crammed together leaving them without enough room to act on natural instincts like preening, nesting and dust bathing.

Debeaking

Debeaking is the practical removal or burning off of the upper and lower beak by an electrically heated blade. This mutilation is performed to reduce hen-pecking and cannibalistic behaviours which are a result of their close confinement and frustration. Debeaking is known to cause acute and chronic pain.

Sow stalls

On factory farms, many pregnant pigs (or sows), are permitted by law to spend a significant portion of their lives confined to sow stalls. These are small metal and concrete cages that are barely larger than the pregnant pig’s body; restricting her so she can’t even turn around.

The need for truth in labelling

Australian consumers are often unaware that many animal products for sale in Australia are sourced from these factory farm systems. This misperception is exacerbated by a lack of adequate truth in labelling legislation which would require producers to disclose information about farm production methods.

Increasing numbers of consumers are willing to pay a little more for humanely produced products at the checkout, particularly in relation to eggs. According to consumer advocacy group CHOICE, 39% of the egg market is now “free range”. Despite this, there is no legal definition of what “free range” actually means so there are no guarantees that hens will have sufficient room or even proper access to the outdoors.

The Bill seeks to address this problem by clearly defining the meaning of “free range” in terms of egg production.

What the Bill will do

Ban battery cages and sow stalls

The Bill amends the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (VIC) as follows:

  • New section 11C(1) introduces the offence of keeping egg-laying hens in battery cages for the purpose of the production of eggs for sale. New Section 11C(2) introduces the same offence for meat-chickens (or broilers).
  • New Section 11B introduces an offence for a person who removes or trims the beak of a chicken.
  • New section 11D(1) introduces the offence of keeping pigs in “inappropriate accommodation”, with “appropriate accommodation” being defined as accommodation that allows the pig to turn around, stand up and lie down without difficulty; and have a clean, comfortable and adequately drained place in which she can lie down; and maintain a comfortable temperature and have outdoor access.

A maximum penalty is proposed for each offence of 240 penalty units (or $35,000) or imprisonment of two years applies for an individual, and 1200 penalty units (or $177,000) in the case of a body corporate.

The provisions prohibiting the use of battery cages and sow stalls will come into operation on 1 January 2017, whilst the prohibition on debeaking will come into effect immediately on the passing of the Bill.

Define “Free Range”

The Bill also amends the Food Act 1984 (VIC) by inserting new section 17A(3). The provision states that describing eggs for sale as “free-range” will be false unless those hens are kept at stocking densities that do not exceed 1500 hens per hectare and comply with any other prescribed requirements for the keeping or housing of hens.

Stocking densities of 1500 hens per hectare is consistent with the standards set in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry and by the RSPCA.1 For comparisons sake, Coles and Woolworths have adopted a 10,000 birds per hectare limit for their own brand of “free range” eggs.

If eggs have been taken to be falsely labelled, it will be considered an offence under the Act, with a maximum penalty for each offence being $40,000 in the case of an individual and $200,000 in the case of a body corporate.

Potential implications for animal welfare

As with the ACT Factory Farming Bill, the passage of the Victorian Bill is vitally important for improving the welfare of factory farmed animals – not just in Victoria, but for the 550 million intensively farmed animals in Australia.

Debate on the Bill has been adjourned until Wednesday, 1 October 2014. Now is the time to show your support.

  • For those living in Victoria contact your local member using this email template. You can find your local member here.
  • If you live outside Victoria, contact Peter Walsh, the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security ([email protected]) using this email template.
  • 1. Note that the RSPCA standards allow for birds to be kept at stocking densities of 2500 birds per hectare in outdoor systems with rotational range access, where it can be demonstrated that birds can access a well-maintained sustainable range area.