A fire at a chicken farm owned by New Zealand’s largest egg producer has killed 50,000 hens as the nation grapples with an egg shortage.
Zeagold Nutrition initially estimated that the fire had affected four barns and 75,000 chickens, but was later revised down after the damage had not been as severe as initially thought—affecting two barns.
The company’s chief executive, John McKay, told New Zealand media that all 12 on-site staff members were unharmed.
“Engineers and electricians have been on site today to restore power, water, and feed to all the remaining sheds,” he said on Feb. 7.
“[The] cause of the fire is yet to be determined, and investigations will continue.”
McKay assured New Zealanders that the loss of the birds would not significantly affect the egg supply.
“It will take time to rebuild the sheds and restore flock numbers, but I want to assure New Zealanders that we’ll be working hard to continue to supply eggs and get back to full capacity as soon as possible,” he said.
“The reality is the losses at Orini represent only 1.4 percent of the layer hen population nationally, so while it’s a tragic loss, it won’t have a significant impact on egg supply.”
New Zealand is currently experiencing an egg shortage after a national ban on battery cages began on Jan. 1.
Battery cages are small, wire cages used to house egg-laying hens. Each cage is about 40 centimetres (16 inches) and contains four to seven hens.
In 2012, the government announced that battery cages for hens in New Zealand would become illegal from 2023, following Europe’s ban in 2012.
It outlined a series of deadlines for farmers to give hens more space wholly and incrementally phase out of battery cages.
Egg Producers Federation Executive Director Michael Brooks said that the ban has caused more than 75 percent of chicken farmers to change their farming methods.
“There are costs in terms of new land, new farming systems, and a lot of farmers have really got some big and very costly decisions to make—and that’s had an impact on supply, and that is part of the issue that’s leading to this supply issue at the moment,” Brooks told Radio New Zealand.
“To go free range, they’d have to buy a whole new farm … so a lot of farmers were really thrown.”
Animal Welfare Advocates Call for Stricter Laws
Animal rights group SAFE said the fire was another reminder of the urgency to end all forms of intensive chicken farming.
“When things go wrong in these factory farms, the blame doesn’t just lie with the farmers; it also falls on our government for allowing animals to be farmed in such conditions,” SAFE head of campaigns Jess Chambers said.
The group believes that while battery cages had been phased out in January, “highly intensive colony cages and indoor barns remain in use.”
“Hens confined in barns never see the light of day; the sheds are stocked to their limits with tens of thousands of birds and severely restrict the ability for hens to display normal patterns of behaviour,” they said.
Chickens Killed in Massive Fire in Connecticut
In the United States, a large farm fire killed around 100,000 egg-laying chickens in Connecticut on Jan. 28.
“There are more than 373 million egg-laying hens in the United States,” a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture told McClatchy News.
“The anticipated potential impact on egg prices due to this incident is minimal to none at this time.”
Egg prices have soared following significant periods of high inflation and outbreaks of avian influenza, or bird flu, that led to the mass culling of 13 percent of the country’s poultry population in 2022.
While the culling caused supply disruptions, which may have given buyers an impression of an egg shortage, there were plenty of eggs available overall.
Supplies were further supported by a 40 percent drop in egg exports and a 30 percent hike in imports.
Jessie Zhang and Petr Svab contributed to this report.