The animal protection think-tank Voiceless¹ has just released a report that highlights the cruelty that is prevalent in egg farming across all production systems in Australia.
The organisation has called for a ban on the use of battery and enriched² cages. It says current government regulations are a failure.
There are poor labelling standards in the egg industry, Voiceless says, and there is widespread consumer confusion.
In their work on the report, entitled “Unscrambled: The hidden truth of hen welfare in the Australian egg industry”, Voiceless researchers examined the use of battery cages and the barn-laid and free-range systems.
The report presents information about international standards and clarifies Australia’s position.
“Australia has fallen behind other nations when it comes to layer hen welfare, so the time has come for us to evolve to a better standard,” said the report’s author, Elise Burgess.
“This report comes at a time when there is real opportunity for significant animal welfare advancements in the egg industry. For the first time in 15 years, the Poultry Code is under review.”
More than 25 million hens, plus millions of male chicks, are used every year by the Australian egg industry, which supplies more than 5.2 billion eggs annually.
“The systemic and legalised cruelty that is inflicted upon hens and their chicks has become a core global animal protection issue over the past two decades, resulting in significant progress in other countries,” the Voiceless report states. “The time for similar action in Australia is well overdue.”
Battery cages have been banned, or are being phased out, in several countries, including most European Union member states, Switzerland, and New Zealand.
“However, the Australian egg industry is still highly supportive of the use of battery cages, despite a decline in consumer sales of eggs produced in those cages,” Burgess said.
More than 11 million hens are confined in battery cages across Australia, Voiceless reports.
“These hens are kept in sheds and confined to small wire cages for their entire lives. Each hen usually has between 4 and 7 cage mates and can be allocated space even smaller than that of an A4-sized piece of paper.”
Cages are often stacked on top of each other in rows in order to maximise production in the available shed space, with one shed able to house tens of thousands of birds.
Despite having complex social and behavioural needs, battery caged hens can barely stretch their wings, Voiceless points out.
“They are given no nests in which to lay their eggs and no litter for scratching, pecking, or dust bathing.
“This lack of space prevents them from performing their full range of behaviours and can lead to severe physical and mental stress.”
Foot and claw damage is common in caged conditions. This often results in hens experiencing chronic pain from the development of lesions and other foot problems.
“The wire cage flooring can result in a hen’s feet becoming sore, cracked, and deformed,” the Voiceless report states.
“Without the opportunity to be worn down through scratching, the hen’s nails grow long and can even twist around the wire mesh flooring, restricting her movements even further or trapping her to the floor.
“In some cases, excessive nail growth can lead to the nails breaking off, resulting in open wounds and a higher risk of infection.”
The lack of space, and subsequent extreme inactivity, in combination with the physical impacts of unnaturally high egg production, can result in hens developing osteoporosis, leading to chronic pain from bone fractures, the Voiceless report states.
“This is a systemic problem across the cage egg industry, with a 2004 study estimating that 80 to 89 percent of commercial egg-laying hens suffer from osteoporosis.”
According to one report, the amount of calcium that a hen deposits in her egg shells in one year can be up to twenty times the amount retained in her body.
In severe cases of osteoporosis, a hen’s spine can collapse, resulting in paralysis.
In large-scale systems, many hens with osteoporosis or bone fractures are not detected and are left to suffer and die.
Egg producers selectively breed hens to increase production, despite the numerous health and welfare problems associated with this practice.
High egg production can lead to the growth of tumours of the oviduct. Research shows that adenomas (benign glandular tumours) and adenocarcinomas (malignant glandular tumours) are common in commercial laying hens.
Small birds suffer from cloacal prolapse (an exposed reproductive tract) from the physical pressure of producing large eggs.
The maceration and gassing of male chicks, debeaking of hens, forced moulting, selective breeding, depopulation, and slaughter are permitted across all egg production systems in Australia, Voiceless points out.
“It is perhaps the slaughter of day-old chicks that is the most disturbing, yet little known, aspect of the egg industry.
“Maceration is the primary method of slaughter and generally involves the unwanted chicks being carried via conveyor belt before falling into a roller-like metal grinder, where their entire bodies are sliced and ground up, while the chicks are fully conscious.”
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Voiceless is calling for a ban on the routine slaughter of surplus male chicks, the use of forced moulting techniques, and any deprivation of food or water.
Forced moulting is a controversial practice whereby egg producers artificially induce an entire flock of hens to moult their feathers at the same time, usually by subjecting the flock to environmental stress, such as reducing food and water sources.
When hens are forced to moult, they stop producing eggs altogether for about 14 days, after which their egg production recommences at a high rate.
Australia’s Poultry Code stipulates that moult inducement (specifically controlled feeding) should only be carried out on healthy birds, and that it cannot involve electric pulse wires or feed that isn’t edible for hens. The code does, however, allow for birds to be left for up to 24 hours without any food or water.
There should, Voiceless says, be a mandatory reduction of the reliance on debeaking as a management tool, “with an aim to prohibit the practice altogether”.
Flocks should be selected based on genetic traits that promote higher welfare outcomes, including improved bone strength and reduced aggression, Voiceless adds.
Voiceless is also calling for legislation that makes egg labelling mandatory, not only in line with the production methods used (cage, barn, access to range, or free range), but also with reference to stocking densities and the use of certain husbandry practices.
“There should also be a mandatory reduction of stocking densities and mandatory provision of shade, shelter and vegetation for outdoor ranges.”
Voiceless also wants businesses to remove caged eggs from their supply chains and influence suppliers to follow suit, and to consider using egg-free alternatives and egg replacers in their products.
Some European countries are abolishing cage systems altogether. Switzerland has already banned enriched cages, with Austria and Belgium reportedly set to do the same by 2020 and 2024 respectively.
Currently, enriched cages are not widely used in Australia, but they may well become the egg industry’s system of choice in the event of a ban on battery cages.
Voiceless notes that enriched cages are more effective in preventing spread of disease than free-range systems and there is less feather pecking than in barn or free-range systems. Enriched cages also give hens the opportunity to perch and nest, albeit in cramped quarters with fellow hens, and this can improve their behavioural expression and musculoskeletal health.
However, Voiceless points out, enriched cages are still extremely confining, with each hen potentially given no greater space than that of an A4 sheet of paper. In addition, extra cage space can simply be filled with more birds, so the stocking density can still be high.
“Enriched cages severely inhibit the hen’s expression of natural behaviours,” the new report states.
“For example, a hen still cannot move freely, or dust bathe. She also cannot escape from aggressive behaviour from other hens such as feather pecking.”
It is also difficult to measure the benefit of a perch to an individual hen, as she will potentially share that perch with multiple other hens, and perches are too low to serve a hen’s ethological need to feel safe by perching up high.
Despite having a natural life span of up to 12 years, layer hens are generally considered to be ‘spent’ at only 72 weeks of age. It is at about this age that their egg production rates begin to decline.
The “spent” hens are either killed on-farm and composted, or are packed into crates and transported, often long distances, to a slaughterhouse.
“The packing and transport process is stressful for layer hens, and due to their weakened bones, they are particularly susceptible to fractures and similar injuries as part of the handling and transport process,” Voiceless states.
The transport crates are severely overstocked, with 36 hens packed into a square metre, and the minimum crate height requirement is just 25 centimetres.
Day-old chicks are transported at stocking densities of up to 455 per square metre.
‘Bowing to industry pressure’
Voiceless says that the new free-range standard agreed by federal, state, and territory ministers in Australia is worse than the one that was previously in force.
“Among a number of concerning changes, the new information standard will allow for outdoor stocking densities of 10,000 birds per hectare, which is significantly higher than the previous Poultry Code requirement of 1,500 birds per hectare.”
Voiceless says the new standard does not address concerns about indoor stocking densities and places no restrictions on the debeaking and forced moulting of hens in free-range systems.
“Critically, the standard only requires producers to provide hens with access to the range, as opposed to requiring that birds actually go outside.
“It would seem that the government has bowed to industry pressure – ignoring animal welfare concerns and consumer expectations, and redefining ‘free range’ to make it consistent with large-scale, intensive systems that should more appropriately label their eggs as indoor or barn raised.”
State bans on battery cages
To date, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is the only jurisdiction in the country to have banned the use of battery and enriched cages for egg-laying hens, as well as the routine debeaking of chicks.
“The ACT is also the only jurisdiction to pass legislation requiring the labelling of egg cartons according to their production systems (cage, barn or free range), and for retailers to display eggs on supermarket shelves accordingly,” the Voiceless report states.
Tasmania also passed legislation to prohibit the construction of battery cages from 2013, but the law only relates to new facilities and has not affected battery cage systems that were in operation in the state prior to 2013.
In its new report, Voiceless points to chickens’ little-known use of complex skills and social structures, and their emotional intelligence.
Research has shown that the birds communicate using more than 24 different types of vocalisations as well as visual displays, including specific signals that assist in the recognition of individuals.
“Mother hens show an emotional response when witnessing their chicks experiencing pain or making mistakes, with one study concluding that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy,” Voiceless states.
There is also evidence that chickens have long-term memory, eavesdrop, and recognise reputation in their social system.
“Chickens can master complex skills, including numeracy, geometry, and spatial ability.”
‘Buying into mass slaughter’
In their introduction to the new report, the joint managing directors and co-founders of Voiceless, Ondine and Brian Sherman say that, in the breeding industry, where 50 percent of hatching eggs are male, millions of chicks are macerated or gassed each year.
“Breeders have no use for them; the egg industry doesn’t want them as they don’t lay eggs; and the meat industry desires only their ‘Frankenstein’ chickens who have quadruple the profit on their bones.”
All farms, from free range to battery, buy their hens from breeders and, therefore, purchasing any type of eggs means buying into the breeder’s mass slaughter of male chicks, Voiceless says.
Voiceless says that, through their purchasing decisions, Australian consumers have been sending a strong message to industry, politicians, and businesses that they should fall into line with community expectations, and bring an end to the widespread abuses associated with battery cage production.
“For Voiceless, the heart of this issue is the hen and her suffering. While there are many issues of concern with the treatment of animals within animal use industries, the permanent confinement of a sentient being must surely be one of the cruellest methods still in use.”
1) Voiceless works to alleviate the suffering caused by factory farming and the commercial hunting of kangaroos.
2) Enriched or colony cages are designed to hold up to ninety birds. They have perches, small nesting areas and, in some cases, scratch pads.
Headline photo taken by Jo-Anne McArthur for We Animals.