In years to come, intensive "factory" farmers may look back on Friday, August 14, as the day that marked the beginning of their downward spiral and eventual demise.
Woolworths' decision to reduce its product lines of battery eggs and to replace them with barn-laid and free-range eggs was announced on Friday, followed shortly by the McDonald's resolution, reported on Sunday, to move its Australian operation towards using free-range eggs.
These small steps might seem insignificant. However, together, they signal a seismic shift in Australia's attitude to animal welfare.
Since the start of the Australian animal protection movement in the late 1970s (with Peter Singer's groundbreaking book Animal Liberation), advocates have been campaigning to get hens out of cages.
Now, 30 years later, the understanding has finally developed that these sentient animals are indeed suffering in their confinement.
Today, it seems that more Australians know about the plight of caged hens than any other farm animal welfare issue (eg pregnant pigs confined in crates, cutting piglets' tails off without pain relief etc).
The increased awareness of the cruelty inherent in battery-egg production has led to a growing demand for barn-laid, organic and free-range eggs.
In recent years "free-range" has become a mainstream concept and increasingly fashionable for Sydney's cafes that proudly advertise their guilt-free egg benedicts at Sunday brunch.
Slowly, animal advocates are seeing the results of their labour. In the past two years, the University of Newcastle has gone "cage-free" and all ACT government agencies (including hospitals, correctional facilities, CIT campuses and schools) have committed to using barn-laid or free-range eggs.
While these are important steps, when we look to Europe and the US, we discover that Australia is no world leader in animal welfare.
Major retailers and governments overseas have taken giant steps towards a total rejection of caged eggs.
In Britain, two of the four major supermarkets will not sell eggs from caged hens after 2010 and almost all of the McDonald's British eggs now come from free-range chickens (with a commitment to use 100 per cent cage-free birds by 2010).
Last year, nearly 350 US universities, including Harvard and Princeton, had policies either to eliminate or to reduce their use of battery eggs.
Burger King continues to reduce its usage of eggs from battery hens (as well as other caged animal products) and the North American component of Compass Group, the world's largest food service provider, now only uses cage-free eggs in its meal production.
Conventional battery cages are being phased out in the EU, with a total ban by 2012.
All cage systems are already prohibited in Switzerland with Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria all banning or phasing them out.
While governments internationally are taking leadership, the Australian Government has been moving backwards.
By encouraging factory farmers to invest large funds into making cages fractionally bigger (the space allocated per hen recently increased from 450 square centimetres to 550 square centimetres), they are ensuring that the caged system will be entrenched in Australian farms for many years to come.
The decision by Woolworths and McDonald's might seem small and safe to those of us who reject cruelty for profit but, as a famous saying goes, "A journey of 1000 miles must begin with a single step."
Ondine Sherman is a director of animal protection institute Voiceless.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 August 2009.
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