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Chickens and eggs

By Katrina Sharman - posted Tuesday, 9 September 2008


While scientists and philosophers continue to debate the age-old dilemma of “which comes first, the chicken or the egg”, the answer for Australia’s ten million caged layer or “battery” hens is patently clear. Despite increasing community awareness about the plight of battery hens, the vast majority of Australia’s egg laying flock today spend their short lives warehoused with hundreds of thousands of others, confined in small cages in which they are unable to preen, nest, stretch their wings or exercise the bulk of their natural behaviours. Many layer hens also live in a permanent state of disfigurement (PDF 63KB), following the forced removal of part of their beak, being the sensory organ with which they make sense of their world.

In a time when Australia purports to be a “world leader in animal welfare”, the widespread acceptance of such practices highlights a failure on the part of lawmakers to keep pace with international animal law reforms aimed at phasing out the worst aspects of institutionalised animal abuse or “factory farming”.

Legislative framework for layer hen welfare

In Australia, as in many other industrialised nations, millions of chickens are bred each year specifically for the purpose of egg production. The law classifies these animals as property or “live stock”. This is often reflected in the way that they are marketed; as products with “favourable genetic characteristics” such as high output or producers of superior quality eggs. It is also reflected in the way they are treated; as egg-laying machines that need to be maintained with minimum levels of food, water, shelter and veterinary care.

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Due to the focus on maximising egg production, many modern farming methods appear to disregard the fact that chickens are sentient beings with the capacity to suffer. However, there is ample research to demonstrate that chickens, like humans, experience physical sensations such as pain, and emotional responses such as fear, anxiety, pleasure and enjoyment. Studies have also shown that chickens are highly social animals with complex cognitive abilities. These factors must be borne in mind when considering the ability of Australia’s current legislative framework to meet their needs.

Australia has no federal law that applies to the raising or slaughter of poultry, including chickens. Consequently, it is left to each State or Territory to regulate their welfare. As each jurisdiction’s animal welfare law purports to apply to all animals, prima facie, chickens appear to be protected from cruelty. Despite this, any close examination of State and Territory animal welfare legislation reveals that chickens, like many other animals used for food production purposes, fall largely outside the reach of the law when it comes to the most meaningful of protections.

This is perhaps best illustrated at the commencement of an egg-laying chicken’s life, when chicks are sorted, sexed and vaccinated in hatcheries before being transported to egg production farms. At this point, male chicks who cannot lay eggs, are designated as an industry waste product and are “destroyed”; generally by gassing or maceration (disposal in a high-speed grinder).

For those chickens that remain, namely hens, the animal welfare statutes of each jurisdiction permit a series of encroachments on bodily liberty and bodily integrity in the interests of maximising egg production. These abuses are entrenched by the presence of the Federal Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry (the Poultry Code), a document endorsed by Federal, State and Territory Primary Industries Ministers, which underpins the primary animal welfare law to different degrees in each jurisdiction. Some examples of practices which battery hens are lawfully subjected to are outlined below.

Permanent confinement

While free-ranging chickens were once a common feature of the Australian agricultural landscape, the corporatisation of animal production in recent decades has resulted in the concentration of egg production in giant facilities with up to 500,000 birds per farm. On these factory farms, hens are confined indoors in conventional or “battery cages”, which are stacked in tiers on top of each other. Each hen has between three and 20 cage mates. Hens in battery cages spend their lives in artificially lit surroundings designed to maximise laying activity. They are allocated the space equivalent of little more than an A4 sized piece of paper, which is insufficient room to exercise most natural behaviours such as preening, nesting, foraging and dust bathing.

As hens raised in battery cages spend their time continually standing on sloping wire floors designed to facilitate egg collection, many experience chronic pain from the development of lesions and other foot problems. Permanent confinement combined with the unnaturally high demands of egg production may also result in physical disabilities such as reduced bone strength and muscle weakness. Hens raised in barren battery cage environments generally live for about 12 months before being slaughtered due to reduced productivity. However, in some instances, to increase cost-efficiency, producers induce a process called forced moulting. This involves feeding hens a modified diet, intended to restore shell quality and productivity. It generally results in hens being kept alive, albeit in confinement, for a further year.

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The legislation of most Australian jurisdictions expressly sanctions the permanent confinement of hens in battery cages by enshrining minimum floor space requirements of 550cm² per bird. In those jurisdictions where caged housing is not expressly provided for, such as Western Australia and the Northern Territory, there is implied acceptance due to endorsement of the Poultry Code. Practices such as moulting are not expressly provided for in animal welfare laws but are set out in the Poultry Code. Western Australia’s animal welfare laws also allow producers to claim that certain normal or accepted husbandry practices (such as battery hen farming and moulting) are defensible provided that they are carried out in a “humane manner”.

Mutilations or “surgical procedures”

Due to the suppression of many of their natural instincts and social interactions, chickens raised in battery cages often become frustrated. This may trigger the development of stereotypical behaviours (PDF 63KB) such as pecking, bullying and cannibalism. Producers consider these to be behavioural “vices” because they can lead hens to injure themselves or other birds. Consequently, chicks are routinely beak-trimmed or de-beaked, which involves the partial removal or burning off of the upper and lower beak through the application of an electrically heated blade. Those hens who are considered to be excessively aggressive may be beak trimmed again at eight to 12 weeks of age. Producers also consider beak trimming desirable as it increases profitability by improving feed conversion and reducing food wastage.

Despite the fact that de-beaking is known to cause acute (PDF 63KB) and chronic pain (particularly in older birds) due to tissue damage and nerve injury, no State or Territory law requires pain relief to be used in conjunction with the procedure. There is also no legal requirement for the procedure to be carried out by a veterinarian or a stockperson with specialised training. Although it may be argued that mutilations of this kind constitute acts of animal cruelty, or certainly would do so if a comparable level of pain was inflicted on a companion animal, they appear to be routinely carried out on the assumption that they constitute necessary, reasonable or justifiable cruelty, all of which is permitted under each jurisdiction’s animal welfare legislation. Furthermore, the Poultry Code does not expressly prohibit the practice of de-beaking and, in addition to this a number of Federal and State bodies actually provide best practice guidelines for how to carry out the procedure.

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First published in the Australian Animal Protection Law Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 2008.



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About the Author

Katrina Sharman is the Corporate Counsel for Voiceless, a non-profit organisation for animals in Australia. Voiceless is an animal protection think-tank established by Brian Sherman AM and Ondine Sherman.

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All articles by Katrina Sharman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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