Asia Cage-Free Benchmark: Malaysia scores lowest in supporting industry shift towards non-battery farming for laying hens

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 22 — A report that assesses the progress of governments across the region in supporting the industry shift towards cage-free farming has found that Malaysia scored the lowest when evaluated on three key pillars — ending cages, policy framework and welfare standards.

Malaysia ranked equal lowest alongside Bangladesh and Vietnam at four out of 140 points, trailing Singapore with six points, Nepal with 6.5 points and Japan with eight points.

The report, Asia Cage-Free Benchmark (Benchmark), conducted by Open Wing Alliance (OWA) — a global coalition of 100 organisations spanning across 72 countries — is responding to rising consumer concern for animal welfare and increasing commitments from companies to source cage-free eggs.

In a statement, the OWA said that the Benchmark is a clarion call for deeper engagement from governments in Asia.

“Seventeen countries across East Asia, South and West Asia, and South-east Asia, Australia, and New Zealand (SEAANZ) were evaluated on three key pillars — ending cages, policy framework and welfare standards.

“New Zealand ranked first in the Benchmark with a score of 86 points, scoring highest or equal highest on two of the three pillars.

“Israel came in second with a score of 78, followed by Australia with 62 and Bhutan with 44,” OWA said.

According to OWA, the Benchmark serves as a vital snapshot of progress to date, aiding governments in implementing effective policies to hasten the shift to cage-free farming, which will benefit people and animals alike throughout Asia.

“It is imperative that Asian governments actively support the transition towards cage-free farming to ensure a seamless shift for consumers and industry stakeholders.

“By providing regulatory clarity for corporate buyers, industry can move towards higher animal welfare standards,” director of campaigns and international affairs, environment and animal society of Taiwan (member of OWA) Jonathon Tree said in the statement.

Citing a 2022 study, OWA said the study found that an average of 86 per cent of consumers in eight countries in the Asia Pacific expressed significant concern for farmed animal welfare.

Additionally, the study cited leading companies, from global leaders like Nestlé, Unilever, Burger King, KFC, and Marriott, to regional Asian firms such as Minor Foods and Jollibee Foods Corporation as having committed to eliminating battery cages in favour of cage-free egg practices.

“Approximately, 63 per cent of the world’s commercial laying hen population, equivalent to more than three billion birds, is located in Asia,” Tree added.

“Unfortunately, an estimated 90 per cent of laying hens in Asia spend their entire lives trapped in tiny, metal cages in which they are unable to fulfil their most basic instincts,” Tree said.

Hens in cages are deprived of the ability to express their fundamental needs, including preening, dust bathing, perching, nesting, foraging, or even the ability to fully spread their wings.

The report applies 31 criteria to access performance across the three pillars — ending cages assesses cage bans and progress towards eliminating cages, policy framework examines the overarching policy architecture supporting the transition and welfare standards evaluates welfare standards for hens in cage-free systems, spanning on-farm, transport, and slaughter and killing.

According to Benchmark, the majority of countries (six out of eight) in SEAANZ have not implemented bans on the use of cages, or the construction of new cages, for both barren battery cages and “enriched” cages.

New Zealand enacted a 10-year phase-out of barren battery cages in 2012.

Its government prohibited the installation of new barren battery cages after October 2018, with existing barren battery cages required to transition by January 2023.

The phase-out saw the proportion of laying hens confined in barren battery cages drop from 86 per cent to zero within a decade, highlighting the critical role of government in leading the industry transition.

Benchmark however found that Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam do not currently have bans on the use of cages or policy targets to phase out their use.

Cages are still the predominant housing system for most countries within SEAANZ, with the majority of countries (six) in the region housing less than 10 per cent of their laying hen flock in cage-free systems.

“Currently, only two countries — Australia and New Zealand — house the majority of their laying flock in cage-free systems,” the Benchmark wrote.

Cage bans

In the aspect of cage bans, the Benchmark found that South and West Asia has made the most progress on cage bans — led by Israel and Bhutan — and boasts the highest average score of the three regions.

“Bhutan is the only country in the region to have fully implemented a ban on barren battery cages,” the Benchmark wrote.

In 2012, Bhutan’s Minister of Agriculture and Forests announced that hens “shall never be continually confined in restrictive cages” that prevent hens from fully stretching their limbs or expressing important natural behaviours.

The Bhutan Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines also state that laying hens must be provided with either a nesting area or nest boxes, thereby precluding the use of barren battery cages.

The Benchmark also found that Israel is the only country in South and West Asia to have enacted a phase-out of both barren battery cages and “enriched” cages.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal do not currently have bans on the use of cages or policy targets to phase out their use.

Official standards

As for official standards, the Benchmark found that three-quarters of the countries surveyed in the SEAANZ region have some form of government-enacted official laying-hen welfare standards.

Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries to have enacted mandatory cage-free standards, while other countries in the region have voluntary standards for cage-free systems.

For example, the Philippines government published their Code of Practice for Cage-free Egg Production in 2021, and the Indonesian Department of Agriculture released Guidelines for Animal Welfare for Layer Hen Farms in 2023 specifically for barn and free-range systems.

The Benchmark also found that though Singapore does have a general poultry code, the government has not enacted specific cage-free standards for laying hens.

“Out of the eight countries in SEAANZ, only Malaysia and Vietnam lack any form of standards regarding laying hen welfare or cage-free farming,” the Benchmark wrote.

In addition, the Benchmark found that all countries except Malaysia fulfil one or more standards relating to the expression of natural behaviours.

Six countries have mandatory or voluntary standards for perches, while five countries have mandatory or voluntary standards for nesting boxes.

However, only a minority of countries include standards for both litter and pecking enrichments, which allow for dust bathing, scratching, foraging, and pecking.

“Indonesia and the Philippines are the only countries in SEAANZ that fulfil both the minimum criteria of 250cm of litter per bird and the provision of additional pecking enrichments in their voluntary standards.

“Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries to prohibit forced moulting by any method and to limit beak trimming to infra-red treatment at the hatchery in accordance with the Benchmark criteria,” the Benchmark wrote.

In the report, Benchmark’s findings show there is not a direct correlation between wealth and government support for the cage-free transition.

“For example, Bhutan ranks fourth in the Benchmark with a per capita GDP (gross domestic product) of US$3,266 (RM15,700), outperforming wealthier countries such as Singapore and Japan.

“The Benchmark also highlights differences between regions. On average, countries in South and West Asia score highest for ending ages (average score of 13.6), East Asia has the most comprehensive policy framework (13.0), and SEAANZ performs best on welfare standards (12.9),” the Benchmark wrote.

Effective enforcement

Lastly, the Benchmark findings indicate that effective enforcement is sorely lacking across the region.

The report found that less than one-third of countries have enacted financial penalties for violations of laying hen welfare or cage-free standards, while just four countries have publicly documented, effective enforcement programmes.

“It is critical that governments in Asia use all of the tools at their disposal to support the cage-free transition.

“Corporate cage-free commitments alone demand that billions of eggs in Asia are produced in cage-free systems in the coming decade; governments should act within their power to help producers meet and seize this opportunity,” the Benchmark wrote.

“We hope that the Benchmark will provide an opportunity for governments in Asia to take stock of their progress and identify effective policy tools to accelerate the cage-free transition.

“We also hope it will provide impetus for governments that are not yet using the policy tools at their disposal.”