EXCLUSIVE

Phase out: By 2018, Woolworths have pledged to no longer stock caged eggs.
Phase out: By 2018, Woolworths have pledged to no longer stock caged eggs. Photo: Supplied

All eggs from caged hens will be removed from the shelves of Woolworths over five years as the supermarket responds to growing consumer demand to address animal welfare, the supermarket chain will announce on Friday.

Battery hens lay half of the eggs sold by Woolworths and will be phased out by 2018, affecting 12 caged egg suppliers that will have to shift to a sustainable cage-free model.

The change will mean a rise in egg prices, with caged eggs being the cheapest option, but is expected to be applauded by animal rights groups and ethical consumers.

As part of Woolworths' poultry overhaul, caged eggs will no longer be an ingredient of any home-brand products.

The treatment of chickens used for meat will also have to adhere to the minimum standards set by the RSPCA.

This includes adequate access to water and food, adequate space and freedom from ''discomfort, pain and distress'', according to the guidelines.

Woolworths is not the only chain addressing the treatment of chickens.

Coles announced it would stop selling company-branded caged eggs in October last year, accounting for 350,000 hens that were freed from cages.

Consumers can now buy ''welfare-friendly'' eggs from the Coles-branded products.

The popularity of caged eggs has fallen noticeably in recent years as consumers demand a stronger commitment to animal welfare. In 2009, caged eggs made up 70 per cent of all eggs sold in Woolworths; they now comprise 50 per cent.

A report from the CSIRO on poultry standards shows that caged chickens have a limited ability to perch, fully stretch or lay eggs in a nest. Diseases are also difficult to contain in caged environments, the report said.

But less than five years ago, consumers would not have known if they were buying free-range, barn-laid or caged eggs.

It was only in late 2009 that Woolworths started clearly labelling how their eggs had been farmed, designating free-range, barn-laid and caged eggs.

A report by consumer group Choice found the average cost of cage eggs was 43¢ per 100g, while the cost of barn-laid eggs was 80¢ and free-range eggs 93¢. The report, released this week, found free-range eggs cost more than double the price of cage eggs, but the number of chickens varied from the recommended 1500 chickens per hectare to 20,000 per hectare.

Woolworths' Select brand of free-range eggs have 10,000 chickens per hectare.

Macro, another of Woolworths' brands, lists a chicken stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare – the recommended standard for free-range.

As of last week, the stocking density will now be labelled on all Woolworths Select free-range eggs.