IN THE NEWS: Poultry code review could help unscramble chicken-cruelty rules


IN THE NEWS: On OCT 5, 2017

Australia is lagging well behind international standards when it comes to the use of battery cages. But in 2017, there is an opportunity for progress.

More than 25 million hens, plus millions of male chicks, are used by the Australian egg industry every year.

Egg production is divided across three primary farming methods - battery cages, barn-laid and free range. This separation in farming styles has led to eggs becoming one of the most confusing, and hotly debated, animal products on the market.

Eggs attract fierce debate as consumers are vocal about their expectations of how eggs should be produced, and how hens should be treated.

Which is why it is so shocking that, in 2017, approximately 11 to 12 million hens are still confined in battery cage systems across Australia.

Battery cages have already been banned, or are being phased out, in a significant number of global markets due to the severe welfare issues inherent in their use, including Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and Austria.

In Australia, the ACT is the only jurisdiction to have prohibited the use of battery cages.

Arguably factory farming at its worst, the battery cage production system permanently confines egg-laying hens in rows of tiny cages in a shed for their entire lives, locked in a cage with less space than that of an A4 page for each bird.

Independent animal welfare science (and common sense) shows how much hens suffer within these cages.

There are numerous issues, including severe mental and behavioural impacts, and physical issues. The extreme lack of space and inactivity, in combination with the physical effort of producing eggshells for unnaturally high egg production, can result in hens developing osteoporosis, leading to chronic pain from bone fractures. This is a systemic problem across the cage-egg industry, with a 2004 study estimating that 80-89 per cent of commercial egg-laying hens suffer from osteoporosis.

In fact, a hen's bones could become so weak that her spine disintegrates and she becomes paralysed. She will then die from dehydration in her cage.

What's more, forced to stand on wire flooring, hens can also suffer chronic pain from foot lesions, and serious bone and muscle weakness. The wire cage flooring can result in a hen's feet becoming sore, cracked and deformed and, in some cases, her nails twisting around the wire mesh flooring to restrict her movements even further or even to trap her to the floor.These are serious issues for hens, and yet, when conversations happen about eggs production, the welfare of the laying hen is often ignored.

Voiceless has launched its latest in-depth report, Unscrambled: The Hidden Truth of Hen Welfare in the Australian Egg Industry, in an effort to bring much-needed attention to the welfare and labelling issues of the industry.

The product of two years of extensive research and legal review, Unscrambled assesses the key animal protection issues associated with the use of battery cages, but also barn-laid and free-range systems, from an animal welfare and scientific perspective.

The report, which has been reviewed by seven leading animal welfare and legal experts, and endorsed by major animal protection organisations Animals Australia, Mercy for Animals (US) and Compassion in World Farming (UK), explores the current status of hen and chick welfare in Australia, and how we compare globally.

The short answer? It is not a pretty picture.

Battery cages, barn-laid and free-range systems all present major animal welfare issues, some that are unavoidable in the production of eggs, such as the maceration (grinding up) of day-old male chicks.

Consumer groups too, are frustrated at the loose use of the term "free range", duping consumers into buying eggs that fall well below their expectations.

Yet there are emerging opportunities for significant advancements in animal welfare in the egg industry.

For instance, for the first time in 15 years, the Model Code of Practice for Poultry is under review in 2017. The code sets the standards for how chickens can be treated, and currently condones permanent confinement of hens, which is illegal to inflict upon a dog or cat.

Voiceless has serious concerns that this opportunity for change will instead be used as a means to lock in the continued use of cages in Australia permanently, due to concerns raised about the independence of the review process.

Therefore, to address the serious welfare issues within the Australian egg industry, a multi-tiered approach is required from industry, government, businesses and consumers.

This approach must address the suffering of the millions of hens who are living within Australia's egg production industry, but also to prepare for future generations of hens and their offspring.

To address the immediate suffering of hens, industry and government must at least take steps towards a phase-out of standard industry mutilation practices such as beak trimming and the maceration of male chicks.

However, to advance the protection of chickens, it is the role of business and consumers to lead the call for meaningful change, to demand that the millions of chickens who live in Australia are treated in a way that meets our expectations, and are at least free from battery cages.

The Model Code of Practice for Poultry is under review and is due to open up for public consultation in August.

Unscrambled: The hidden truth of hen welfare in the Australian egg industry is available for free download.

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