When I was growing up, we had a henhouse full of chickens.
My Mum called them 'The Ladies' and they kept us, the neighbours and the post lady in eggs.
They were not special chooks, in fact Mum rescued the rejects – chickens the local battery decided were no longer laying enough eggs per day.
Those chooks arrived with their beaks and wings clipped and sporting just a handful of feathers, and after being confined in their battery cage, they couldn't curl their toes around the bars in the chook shed to roost.
They must have been overwhelmed when they first arrived, huddled together in the corner, not sure what to do with all that space and fresh grass, but after a few months, their feathers would grow back and they started laying eggs again.
But the RSPCA says most battery hens are not so lucky.
They spend their lives in a cage, the floor of which is less than the size of a sheet of A4 paper.
Conditions are different in Europe, with the European Union ordering an end to battery cages in 1999.
Countries in the EU had until the first of January this year to phase out the small cages in favour of larger cages or less-intensive egg farming practices such as barn laid or free-range.
The 'enriched' cages have a nest box, a scratch pad and a perch.
Hope Bertram is the marketing manager of the Humane Food Initiative for the RSPCA Australia.
She says there is a growing trend for consumers to be asking more questions about where their food comes from and how it is being produced.
An RSPCA survey from 2009 showed 70 per cent of people surveyed said they were concerned about hens in cages, more than double the concern for other animals.
She says the Australian egg industry is behind the game and should look to Europe to make better changes.
However, managing director of the Australian Egg Corporation Limited James Kellaway, argues not all countries took on board the EU directive.
“Most of the conversion has happened in the traditional western european countries, and specifically the north western member states,” he said.
“In the southern member states, less than half of the industry converted and in the eastern states or less affluent areas, they just want to feed a growing population with a high quality protein source.”
Mr Kellaway says in 2008, the egg industry took a step towards self regulation and tried to introduce national changes to cage eggs.
“We had to put in new cages and those cages had to be of a certain design, the industry invested over half a billion dollars to cater for that change,” he said.
They included changes to height, size and stock density of cages.
However, he says the problem is that not all states in Australia are enforcing those changes.
Instead of waiting for the industry or the government to regulate on the issue, the RSPCA has taken the lead.
The organisation established its own animal welfare standards and has worked with egg producers for 10 years that meet the standards, which allows them to bear the RSPCA logo.
Jan and Kim Harwood are egg farmers who have embraced the idea of cage-free eggs.
About 20 years ago they bought a cage egg farm and set about turning it into Margaret River Free Range Eggs.
Mrs Harwood says when they entered the industry there was no information or support for people wanting to move to free-range farming.
“At that stage there was a huge demand for free-range eggs, so we were very lucky,” she said.
She says business and demand started to grow, despite opposition from within the industry.
Mrs Harwood said there's been a big demand for their product, which is now sold in one of the big supermarket chains and the traditionally reluctant restaurant sector is starting to support them as well.
Figures show egg sales have increased across the board in Australia.
Research by the egg industry shows each Australian eats about 213 eggs a year, up from 175 about four years ago.
“We are seeing an increase in the sale of caged eggs, but in terms of market share, there has been an increase in non-cage eggs, whether they be free-range or barn laid,” Mr Kellaway said.
“That represents about 20 per cent of all egg sales, whereas caged eggs have a 72 per cent market share.
“The vast majority come from caged systems and certainly they are a cheaper egg and for those budget shoppers, it provides them with a high quality protein source,” he said.
Data from 2010 shows there is still more than 11 million hens living in cages in Australia and the industry has forecast that to increase.
Mr Kellaway says there are advantages to cage egg production.
“The cages do protect those birds from predators, from soil or manure-borne diseases and allows the production of eggs which are clean,” he said.
The RSPCA's Hope Bertram says price is the biggest barrier for people making the switch from cage- to cage-free eggs.
“But without a doubt there is more support of cage free, that includes barn and free range, than ever before,” she said.
Margaret River free range egg farmers the Harwood's say they are now proud owners of 18,000 'girls' that roam outdoors on fresh pastures each day.
“It feels really good producing a product that you can be proud of, because it's free-range and the animal's welfare is taken care of and also because we think we're producing the best possible product,” mrs Harmer said.
Also on the rise is the number of households with a chicken run in the backyard to supply fresh eggs.
Egg industry data shows backyard egg production can reach 12 per cent of household use at some times of the year.
Today, my Mum still has a henhouse full of second-hand chooks, living out their days in comparative luxury with free-run of the farm and the locals are still benefiting from the fresh eggs they lay