IN THE NEWS: On DEC 21, 2017
Egg farmers have been accused of engaging in systemic collusion with the NSW Government to deliberately thwart moves to outlaw battery hens across the country.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws reveal how the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) allegedly stage-managed a process to write new national standards for chicken welfare.
It has been described by one governance expert as "collusion" and an "act of systemic corruption".
The chicken welfare standards are being rewritten for the first time in 15 years.
Animal welfare advocates had viewed the process as an opportunity to get all the states to follow international moves and outlaw cages for hens.
The NSW Government led the national review, but now documents reveal that instead of promoting debate it deliberately stifled moves to review some of the growing scientific evidence that showed chickens suffered in cramped cages.
Even the Victorian and West Australian governments signalled they had problems with the way NSW had run the review before the standards were released for public comment last week.
New South Wales is the largest producer of caged eggs in the country and critics claim it has a vested interest in continuing the use of battery hens.
The egg industry rejected all the allegations, saying it wanted welfare standards that protected birds and were feasible to implement.
Group met in secret to spin regulation process
The documents, obtained under FOI laws by the Animal Law Institute, show the NSW DPI took part in a secret poultry management group before the standards-writing process had even begun.
The secret group included department and industry representatives and was never listed in official standard-setting documents, meaning animal welfare advocates had no idea it existed.
It met many times over 18 months before and during the welfare-standards-writing process.
Heavily redacted notes from this secret group show government and industry officials discussed ways they could manipulate the development of standards.
It included that standards-development meetings with animal welfare groups should "avoid close discussion of statistics", "have a plan re: direction where we want things to go", "how is discussion being framed" and that "banning cages not the remit of the [group]".
They then asked to meet with the "independent" chairman of the new standards committee prior to his appointment, a move critics said could only be because they wanted to vet him.
The FOI documents reveal a veterinary officer for the department suggested removing the requirement birds have "sufficient space to stand and stretch limbs" because, she wrote: "You can't do this in a battery cage."
The heavily redacted documents also show the secret group sought to invite the independent chair of the welfare standards group to a meeting "before endorsement".
Welfare concerns 'completely ignored'
RSPCA senior policy officer Jed Goodfellow said the whole process was "stage-managed" to get new standards through, "as quickly as possible with as little change as possible".
"People should care because of their concerns about animal welfare are being completely ignored," he said.
Earlier this year the NSW DPI faced national criticism that it was too close to industry over its management of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The latest FOI documents show the DPI asked not-for-profit organisations Animals Australia and the RSPCA to pay to cover the costs of considering extra policy options for hen-stocking densities.
The groups had to pay $3,000 each to get the standards group to consider what was known as "Option E" for stocking densities.
The egg producers were funding part of the review and suggested calls for scientific reviews be ignored because they were paying.
When the RSPCA was lobbying for full review of scientific literature to be done prior to writing new standards, correspondence from the department about the industry's position noted the, "RSPCA, as one member of the Stakeholder Advisory Group [and not a funding partner], should not be allowed to dictate changes to the process".
'The fox is in charge of the henhouse'
Professor Thomas Clarke, who heads the Corporate Governance Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the practice of charging for policy considerations was "absurd" and "worrying".
"I've never heard in my knowledge of accountable government around the world of a government charging for contributions to a policy initiative," he said.
He said the whole process appeared to be based on collusion, "from beginning to end" between the industry and the Government.
"It looks from all appearances as an act of systemic corruption which we thought we had banished from Australia. I think the Premier needs to look at what's occurring here in DPI."
The RSPCA said the situation was like having, "the fox in charge of the henhouse".
"Hens will continue to suffer for a decade or more in barren battery cages while the rest of the world is moving on," Mr Goodfellow said.
NSW DPI chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss denied the State Government had colluded with industry but did not deny the secret group met.
"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," she said.
She said the Australian Egg Corporation funding showed the industry's "commitment" to the process but said the standards-writing process was being reviewed.
Egg Farmers Australia chief executive John Dunn said suggestions of corruption had "really jumped the shark" and there was no evidence of collusion.
"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.
Mr Dunn said many stakeholders funded the review and, "The transparency and the rigor of this process is demonstrated by the options on the table".
"That process should allow for every perspective to be heard and considered. And that includes the important perspective of welfare organisations," he said.
Other states say they're concerned
The NSW Government's handling of the process also raised eyebrows in other states.
When the DPI refused to conduct a scientific review of hen welfare literature, the Victorian Government went ahead and did its own.
It was released in October and found caged hens had five times more bone fractures than hens in other systems.
The Western Australian Government also noted its dissent on the draft standards.
It said in a statement it was concerned they did "not reflect the latest scientific work".
"We felt it was really insufficient to meet a developing community standard," WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan told the ABC.
Mr Goodfellow said it was now up to the states and the public to voice their concerns.
"State governments are going to have to make a decision in the coming months as to whether or not they're going to continue to endorse a cruel and outdated system of production or are they going to be part of the future."
Mr Dunn said the egg industry welcomed "all scientific perspectives" and "discussion of any literature is welcome".