How to make eggs with­out break­ing chick­ens

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Tonya Turner

The shed holds thou­sands of cages full of thou­sands of hens stacked row upon row as far as the eye can see. We’re in Queens­land egg coun­try on the Dar­ling Downs, about 150km west of Bris­bane. About 85 per cent of eggs pro­duced in the state come from this farm­ing re­gion and to­day Ge­orge*, an egg farmer of 40 years’ stand­ing, is show­ing us how things are done in his cage egg fa­cil­ity, which holds about 200,000 layer hens.

At the back of the shed a large in­dus­trial fan spins slowly, the sun­light glow­ing through the panel be­hind it the only nat­u­ral light. Flu­o­res­cent lights are on for 15 hours a day to max­imise egg pro­duc­tion. Con­crete floors are clean, the win­dow­less walls white, and the ma­chin­ery is as high-tech and ef­fi­cient as the en­vi­ron­ment is ar­ti­fi­cial.

It is the first time Ge­orge, stocky and in his late six­ties, has al­lowed any­one from the me­dia into his sheds, on the con­di­tion the farm re­mains anony­mous. “We are wor­ried about an­i­mal ac­tivists,” he says. The farm will soon pass down to his chil­dren. Ge­orge is hop­ing peo­ple will change their minds about bat­tery hen farms and cage eggs if he al­lows them to see what his mod­ern fa­cil­ity – up­graded in 2008 – looks like. “We’re get­ting a flog­ging any­way so we might as well,” he says.

We’re in the largest of the farm’s six un­adorned white sheds, this one mea­sur­ing 106m long x 18m wide and hous­ing 50,000 hens. It is clean and well-ven­ti­lated with cool-room pan­elling, fans and an evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing sys­tem that kicks in when the tem­per­a­ture in­side rises above 25 de­grees. Wa­ter and food are dis­trib­uted by au­to­mated means and the ma­nure trays be­neath the cages have re­cently been cleaned. Sur­pris­ingly, the smell of so much live­stock in this in­door space is mild.

As we get up closer to the hens, they re­veal their in­quis­i­tive na­ture. They take turns stretch­ing their necks through the hor­i­zon­tal bars at the front of the cages to look at the visi­tors and feed from the trays di­rectly be­low. The con­stant rub­bing has re­moved some feath­ers from their necks, a com­mon af­flic­tion of bat­tery hens. In more se­vere cases, stressed or frus­trated hens will painfully peck each other’s feath­ers out, leav­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to in­fec­tion and dis­ease.

A piece of ma­chin­ery jolts above, bring­ing a sec­ond of si­lence as the hens stop cluck­ing and con­sider the noise they’ve just heard. Stud­ies have shown hens are highly so­cial an­i­mals with com­plex cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. They are able to ex­pe­ri­ence pain, fear, anx­i­ety and plea­sure and each has its own per­son­al­ity, although that’s dif­fi­cult to see in this en­vi­ron­ment.

There are six hens in each cage mea­sur­ing 630mm wide x 600mm deep x 530mm high, about the size


Mar­ket forces … Bat­tery farms ( open­ing pages) are claimed to be the only way to meet de­mand.

of a small, square cof­fee ta­ble. Their in­di­vid­ual floor-space al­lo­ca­tion has of­ten been de­scribed as equiv­a­lent to an A4 piece of paper, as is the case here. The cages are just tall enough for the hens to stand up­right, but as one stretches its neck, its head is forced back down. The hens can move around the cage but not with­out touch­ing ei­ther each other or the hard wire around them.

We are not al­lowed to walk the aisles in case we dis­turb the hens too much. The pos­si­bil­ity of a dead or sick chicken among the cages is also a re­al­ity. Ge­orge says the hens in this shed are the last of his flock to be de­beaked, a painful pro­ce­dure and com­mon in­dus­try prac­tice to stop stressed hens hurt­ing each other. It is a change he has made to try to al­ter pub­lic per­cep­tions about the wel­fare of caged hens ver­sus free range hens, many of which are also de­beaked on farms with high stock­ing den­si­ties or poorly man­aged sys­tems.

At 14 months old, the hens in this shed are the old­est on site and in three days’ time will be sent to the abat­toir. By the time they get there many will have suf­fered bro­ken bones due to their weak legs, caused by their con­fine­ment and in­abil­ity to perch, and the re­moval process.

Ge­orge can un­der­stand how the sight of hens in cages can be con­fronting for peo­ple but is con­vinced that once the so-called ad­van­tages are ex­plained, peo­ple will start to think dif­fer­ently.

I ask if he has be­come de­sen­si­tised to it all. “I hope not. That’d mean I’ve lost re­spect for the an­i­mals and their wel­fare,” he says. There is con­vic­tion in his eyes and mo­ments of gen­uine con­cern for the wel­fare of the birds in his words, but there is also a lot of talk about money and feed­ing the masses and profit not be­ing a dirty word. Sep­a­rat­ing com­mer­cial in­ter­ests from an­i­mal wel­fare in­ter­ests is no easy thing. About 11 mil­lion hens are kept in bat­tery cages in Aus­tralia and make up about 68 per cent of all layer hens. The rest are farmed in ei­ther barn or free range sys­tems. In barn sys­tems hens are kept in­doors and cage-free while in free range sys­tems hens must also have ac­cess to the out­doors. Some pro­duc­ers, how­ever, have been found to be mis­us­ing the term “free range” and in a num­ber of cases have been taken to court by the Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Com­mis­sion for false ad­ver­tis­ing. The most re­cent case hit Pirovic En­ter­prises, the largest in­de­pen­dent egg pro­ducer in NSW, with a $300,000 fine for mis­lead­ing pack­ag­ing that sug­gested its eggs were all free range. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion schemes by Coles and Wool­worths help en­sure birds have ac­cess to out­door pas­tures but al­low high stock­ing den­si­ties of up to 10,000 birds per hectare.

Other cer­ti­fi­ca­tion schemes by Free Range Egg and Poul­try Aus­tralia, Hu­mane Choice, Free Range Farm­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and the RSPCA help en­sure ad­di­tional stan­dards for free range farms are met, in­clud­ing lower stock­ing den­si­ties be­tween 750 and 2500 birds per hectare and bet­ter-qual­ity runs of­fer­ing shade and veg­e­ta­tion. The Aus­tralian Cer­ti­fied Or­ganic scheme goes fur­ther to en­sure there are no her­bi­cides or pes­ti­cides used on the land and feed is grown with­out syn­thetic agri­chem­i­cals. Other egg car­tons, how­ever, can be la­belled with pop­u­lar but of­ten empty mar­ket­ing terms such as “or­ganic” and “eco” with­out be­ing in­volved in cer­ti­fi­ca­tion schemes. Sig­nif­i­cantly, there is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to sug­gest any nu­tri­tional dif­fer­ence be­tween cage, barn and free range eggs – mean­ing ethics, not health con­cerns, are largely driv­ing sales of cage-free eggs.

In­dus­try bod­ies, how­ever, say bat­tery farms are the only way to keep up with Aus­tralia’s de­mand for eggs, with 4.71 bil­lion pro­duced for con­sump­tion in 2013. That in­cludes eggs bought in car­tons, eggs used in prod­ucts such as pasta, may­on­naise and bis­cuits, and those sold to the restau­rant and food ser­vice in­dus­tries. But with an­i­mal wel­fare an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion for a grow­ing num­ber of con­sumers, the plight of the

FIRST, GET SOME CHOOKS; [OR] SEC­OND, GET TO KNOW SOME­ONE WHO HAS CHOOKS AND OF­FER TO TAKE EGGS FROM THEM. Ur­ban farmer … Per­ma­cul­ture ed­u­ca­tor Dean Bleasdale res­cues bat­tery hens.

bat­tery hen has been steadily gain­ing at­ten­tion across the coun­try and around the world. Last month Mc­Don­ald’s Aus­tralia, which uses 91 mil­lion eggs each year, an­nounced it would stop us­ing cage eggs by the end of 2017 fol­low­ing a so­cial me­dia cam­paign started by An­i­mals Aus­tralia that in­cluded a video of chil­dren plead­ing with the fast-food chain to be kinder to chick­ens. Days later Sub­way Aus­tralia fol­lowed suit, declar­ing a phase-out within 18 months. Across the coun­try, they join Grill’d, the Cof­fee Club, KFC, Nando’s, Oporto and the Pan­cake Par­lour in their move to cage-free eggs.

Of all the wel­fare is­sues sur­round­ing an­i­mals farmed in fac­to­ries, in­clud­ing pigs and meat chick­ens (which aren’t kept in cages), bat­tery hens are widely con­sid­ered to be the worst af­flicted. In 2012, 27 coun­tries in the Euro­pean Union banned bat­tery cages fol­low­ing a 12-year phase-out af­ter the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s Sci­en­tific Vet­eri­nary Com­mit­tee found they pre­sented “in­her­ent se­vere dis­ad­van­tages for the wel­fare of hens”. States in the US in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia and Michi­gan have started ban­ning bat­tery cages, while closer to home New Zealand has also put an end to the sys­tem dat­ing back at least 80 years.

Tas­ma­nia was the first Aus­tralian state to an­nounce a phase-out of bat­tery cages and ear­lier this year was fol­lowed by the ACT, home to one of the three largest egg pro­duc­ers in the coun­try, Pace Farm. The move came af­ter Pace premises were van­dalised by an­i­mal ac­tivists and a sub­se­quent $7.5 mil­lion pay­ment was made by the ACT La­bor Govern­ment to Pace to con­vert to cage-free op­er­a­tions there. Pace con­tin­ues to use bat­tery hen farms else­where, how­ever, and in Au­gust re­ceived a com­plaint against one of its fa­cil­i­ties in NSW where ac­tivists al­legedly ob­tained footage of feath­er­less birds wan­der­ing around in large piles of ma­nure.

But the Aus­tralian egg in­dus­try is fight­ing hard to keep bat­tery cages oper­a­tional. It ar­gues that cheap cage eggs should re­main an op­tion for con­sumers on a bud­get. It says cage eggs, a high-pro­tein and easy-to-pro­duce food source, will only be­come more im­por­tant to meet the de­mands of our grow­ing (al­beit in­creas­ingly obese) pop­u­la­tion. The in­dus­try also as­serts that wel­fare prob­lems ex­ist in all three egg pro­duc­tion sys­tems, with the ad­van­tages of bat­tery cages in­clud­ing lower dis­ease and mor­tal­ity rates, bet­ter pro­tec­tion from hen in-fight­ing and can­ni­bal­ism due to smaller group sizes, lower oc­cur­rences of ma­nure-borne dis­eases, par­a­sites and avian in­fluenza, and pro­tec­tion from preda­tors. The ease and ef­fi­ciency of caged sys­tems are also a big ad­van­tage for pro­duc­ers who don’t need to worry about the more com­plex and messier man­age­ment sys­tems in­volved with barn and free range pro­duc­tion.

John Cow­ard, CEO of Queens­land United Egg Pro­duc­ers (QUEP), says the in­dus­try is partly re­spon­si­ble for the drop in cage egg sales.

“It is some­what con­fronting for peo­ple to be taken into in­ten­sive live­stock in­dus­tries, so over the years we’ve tended to not make it pub­lic,” he says. Ac­cord­ing to Cow­ard, peo­ple have been mis­guided when it comes to cage egg fa­cil­i­ties in Aus­tralia, of­ten bas­ing their opin­ions on out­dated or over­seas footage widely cir­cu­lat­ing on the in­ter­net. Old sys­tems saw birds crammed into cages where they couldn’t stand, move, or reg­u­late their body tem­per­a­ture, their feath­ers plucked by their stressed and frus­trated cage-mates, and dead chick­ens rot­ting in their rarely in­spected pris­ons. The last re­form for layer hen wel­fare in Aus­tralia 12 years ago called for an in­crease in cage sizes to al­low the hens to stand up fully, as well as stan­dards for ven­ti­la­tion and tem­per­a­ture con­trol. But some op­er­a­tors still don’t com­ply.

John O’Hara, manag­ing direc­tor of Queens­land’s Sunny Queen Farms, agrees with Cow­ard that the egg in­dus­try hasn’t done it­self any favours by not al­low­ing the pub­lic to see how mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties are run. “Farm­ers on the land are not into con­tro­versy,” he says. “The ma­jor­ity are good peo­ple and we don’t want the bloody mugs in there ei­ther, we want proper farm­ers.”

Sunny Queen Farms, along with Pace and Farm


Sub­ur­ban refuge … Two of the John fam­ily’s six chick­ens are res­cued bat­tery hens.

Pride, is one of the big­gest egg sup­pli­ers in the coun­try with farms spread across Queens­land and other states. It owns two mil­lion hens, of which 65 per cent are caged and 30 per cent free range. “All pro­duc­tion sys­tems have pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives at­tached to them,” O’Hara says. “I think ev­ery­one’s got to take one step back and ask, even­tu­ally, what does the con­sumer want and what can they af­ford? … When­ever tough times come, peo­ple will trade down from the more ex­pen­sive free range op­tions to caged va­ri­eties be­cause they’re want­ing to feed their fam­ily and the fam­ily comes first.” A RE­VIEW OF REC­OM­MEN­DA­TIONS FOR STATE leg­is­la­tors con­cern­ing layer hen wel­fare is now four years over­due. The An­i­mal Wel­fare Task Group, chaired in Vic­to­ria and com­pris­ing key stake­hold­ers from all states, is over­see­ing the re­view that was left in limbo af­ter the Ab­bott Govern­ment scrapped the na­tional An­i­mal Wel­fare Com­mit­tee last year. If noth­ing else, in­dus­try and an­i­mal wel­fare groups agree on one thing – the re­view of Aus­tralia’s Model Code of Prac­tice for the Wel­fare of An­i­mals, Do­mes­tic Poul­try (2002), and the change to en­force­able na­tional stan­dards are ur­gent, with the fate of bat­tery cages and free range farm­ing con­di­tions on the line.

Queens­land Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture John McVeigh says a na­tion­ally con­sis­tent ap­proach is im­por­tant for multi-state pro­duc­ers, and that any changes to Queens­land leg­is­la­tion in the mean­time, as has hap­pened in the ACT and Tas­ma­nia, would only com­pli­cate mat­ters. “I’ve made it fairly clear that we want to see some clar­ity as soon as pos­si­ble be­cause the poul­try in­dus­try is a very im­por­tant in­dus­try for Queens­land. I’m anx­ious to see this re­solved,” McVeigh says.

An­i­mal wel­fare groups in­clud­ing the RSPCA, An­i­mals Aus­tralia and Voice­less have long been driv­ing cam­paigns to bring an end to bat­tery cages, some of the most re­cent in­clud­ing well­known co­me­di­ans and celebri­ties telling us to “set a sis­ter free” and “that ain’t no way to treat a lady”. And peo­ple have been lis­ten­ing, so much so that the coun­try’s two big­gest gro­cery gi­ants have taken a stand against cage eggs.

Af­ter De­cem­ber 2018, Wool­worths will no longer sell cage eggs in car­tons or use them as an in­gre­di­ent in any of its own brand of prod­ucts. The phase-out fol­lows a deal be­tween Wool­worths and celebrity chef and an­i­mal wel­fare cam­paigner Jamie Oliver last year, as well as a steady re­duc­tion in cage egg sales. Coles also phased out its own brand of cage eggs in Jan­uary last year. Sunny Queen Farms is a ma­jor sup­plier to both re­tail­ers. “It’s one of the big­gest up­heavals that I’ve ever seen in my life in the re­tail trade,” says O’Hara. “If they’re com­mit­ted to that path­way, then we need to work with them on how we can best achieve it but en­sure we don’t go broke in the mean­time.”

Cage eggs sales have been in steady de­cline at Wool­worths, ac­count­ing for 59.8 per cent of to­tal egg sales in 2011, 55 per cent in 2012 and 52 per cent in 2013. Wool­worths’ head of sus­tain­abil­ity Ar­mineh Mardirossian says the re­tail gi­ant be­lieves the down­ward trend will con­tinue. “We take into ac­count an­i­mal wel­fare is­sues, but more im­por­tantly the an­i­mal wel­fare is­sues our cus­tomers think are im­por­tant, and the way our cus­tomers spend their money,” she says.

Stake­hold­ers agree that hens in all three pro­duc­tion sys­tems are sub­ject to dif­fer­ing and shared wel­fare is­sues, in­clud­ing the killing of male chicks. The key dif­fer­ence for an­i­mal wel­fare groups with re­gard to cages is be­havioural de­pri­va­tion. Around the world, wel­fare bod­ies in­clud­ing the World Or­gan­i­sa­tion for An­i­mal Health iden­tify “five free­doms” for de­ter­min­ing

an­i­mal wel­fare. They in­clude free­dom from hunger and thirst, free­dom from dis­com­fort, free­dom from pain, in­jury or dis­ease, free­dom from fear and dis­tress, and free­dom to ex­press nor­mal be­hav­iour. For hens, this in­cludes dust bathing, perch­ing, for­ag­ing and lay­ing eggs in a nest in pri­vate.

Melina Tensen, sci­en­tific of­fi­cer at the RSPCA’s farm an­i­mals divi­sion, says ev­i­dence from cred­i­ble peer-re­viewed and pub­lished in­ter­na­tional stud­ies has widely rec­om­mended against the use of bat­tery cages. “The egg in­dus­try likes to say hens in cages are no less stressed than hens in cage-free sys­tems, which is ab­so­lutely not the case,” says Tensen, re­fer­ring to a study funded by the Aus­tralian Egg Cor­po­ra­tion Ltd in 2012 of­ten cited by cage egg pro­duc­ers. “Although there might be wel­fare is­sues with non-cage sys­tems, at least those are things that can be ad­dressed through prop­erly manag­ing those sys­tems, whereas a hen in a cage is a hen in a cage and there’s not much you can change about that.”

In line with a study by the in­ter­na­tional Wel­fare Qual­ity project in 2009, the RSPCA also re­jects the “en­riched” or “fur­nished” cages that have been adopted through­out Europe that give birds ac­cess to perches, nests and lit­ter for scratch­ing. “It con­cluded that re­gard­less of whether the cage was fur­nished or not, from a bird’s be­havioural per­spec­tive it still couldn’t meet the bird’s needs,” Tensen says.

Ger­many banned fur­nished cages in 2012 fol­low­ing a ban on “bar­ren” bat­tery cages five years ear­lier. In Aus­tralia, fur­nished cages haven’t been ruled out of ne­go­ti­a­tions. “It would be a sad state of af­fairs if we were forced to go to a cage-free en­vi­ron­ment,” says QUEP’s John Cow­ard. “But it may be that they’re en­hanced con­di­tions within the cages them­selves so that there’s more space to al­low the birds to ex­hibit those nat­u­ral be­hav­iours.” VANESSA JOHN, 39, OF CARINA IN BRIS­BANE’S east, stopped buy­ing cage eggs years ago and is happy to pay more for free range. She rarely has to, how­ever, as she has taken things one step fur­ther and set up a chook pen in her back yard. She has six hens, the max­i­mum al­lowed by Bris­bane City Coun­cil on res­i­den­tial blocks un­der 800 sqm, and two are res­cued bat­tery hens. “They’re the friendli­est and the most in­quis­i­tive,” John says. “They al­ways come up to us like, ‘oh, what are you do­ing?’ The oth­ers only come up to us for food.”

Like most par­ents, John and her hus­band wanted their three young chil­dren to un­der­stand more about where food comes from. She took their two youngest to lo­cal ur­ban farmer and per­ma­cul­ture ed­u­ca­tor Dean Bleasdale’s house to choose the two res­cue hens. “My lit­tlest thought it was a bit yucky,” she says. “They were very bald in places and their feath­ers were bro­ken, and they just weren’t pretty-look­ing chick­ens at all. Their beaks were cut as well.” One of the chick­ens had bright red feath­ers so they called her Scarlet. The


Sec­ond chance … Vanessa John keeps free range chick­ens in her Bris­bane sub­ur­ban back yard.

other they named Blossom, “be­cause we knew she would, and she did”.

Out in the chicken run, the six are cluck­ing and for­ag­ing in the grass with shade from over­hang­ing trees nearby. There is plenty of room for them to dust-bathe, a daily ac­tiv­ity for chooks with ac­cess to soil to clean them­selves and reg­u­late their body tem­per­a­ture. In­side the coop, two nest­ing boxes al­low them to lay in a quiet, se­cluded place – a ba­sic in­stinct for hens. Blossom was in there ear­lier and has left a big white egg in­side, as if to prove that de­spite be­ing past her com­mer­cial ex­piry date, she can still de­liver the goods.

Be­hind the nest­ing boxes, a perch pro­vides a safe sleep­ing space for the hens while help­ing strengthen their legs. Scarlet is the only bird that doesn’t perch, her bones too weak from life in­side a cage. A cou­ple of months ago she went lame and John feared the worst, but three days later she was back on her feet. Af­ter spend­ing the first 18 months of her life in con­fine­ment, Scarlet is prov­ing to be a sur­vivor.

Bleasdale’s house is on a busy road just a few min­utes away from John’s place. Eleven hens, in­clud­ing a batch of res­cues await­ing adop­tion, are busy­ing them­selves in the front yard. Bleasdale, 44, has res­cued about 1000 bat­tery hens over the past three years un­der his Kind­ness for Chick­ens project. He is one of about ten peo­ple he knows of in Bris­bane res­cu­ing bat­tery hens and is nei­ther vegetarian nor an an­i­mal ac­tivist. In­stead, he has built frag­ile re­la­tion­ships with about ten bat­tery hen farm­ers to pur­chase chick­ens that have come to the end of their com­mer­cial life for a dol­lar or two more than of­fered by the abat­toirs.

Of the bat­tery hen farms Bleasdale has seen, con­di­tions vary be­tween how many chick­ens are kept in each cage, their health, the state of their feath­ers, the tem­per­a­ture in the sheds rang­ing from freez­ing to sti­fling hot, and the lev­els of ma­nure be­neath the cages, any­where from min­i­mal to a me­tre high. Bat­tery hens are dis­carded af­ter 12 to 18 months when their egg pro­duc­tion starts to slow. In­stead of lay­ing one egg about ev­ery 30 hours, they might only lay three or four a week but can live to up to five years. Away from the con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment of the fac­tory set­ting, egg num­bers de­pend on the sea­son, with higher pro­duc­tion dur­ing the longer day­light hours of the warmer months.

Af­ter get­ting them home from the farms, Bleasdale does a check on ev­ery bird to make sure they’re in good health be­fore send­ing them away with their new own­ers. “I usu­ally keep them a cou­ple of days just to let them set­tle, but some­times they come in and they go out the same day if they’re okay,” he says. It takes about a week for the hens to start walk­ing prop­erly as they ad­just to life on land in­stead of be­hind wire. Af­ter that, they can re­ally start to en­joy their new­found free­dom. “Chick­ens are very self­gov­ern­ing, they’re very in­de­pen­dent,” Bleasdale says. “Even though those girls have been in a cage all their lives, they come out and within a cou­ple of days they’re dig­ging holes, they’re dust bathing, they know in­stinc­tively what they need to do.”

Rob Joyce, owner of Her­itage Poul­try at Rich­lands in Bris­bane’s south-west, sells about 900 layer hens a month, mostly to peo­ple like Vanessa John keep­ing them in their back yards. “I think it’s part of a gen­eral trend about get­ting back to ba­sics and na­ture,” he says. Since 2009 his sales have grown steadily at a rate of 10 per cent each year.

John calls the chick­ens her “lit­tle gar­den helpers”. As well as sup­ply­ing eggs for fam­ily and friends, they pro­vide fer­tiliser for her edi­bles. It may not be a sys­tem to feed the masses, but it’s one feed­ing this fam­ily of five and keep­ing six layer hens very happy.

When it comes to choos­ing eggs, Bleasdale rec­om­mends get­ting to know your egg pro­duc­ers. “First, get some chooks; sec­ond, get to know some­one who has chooks and of­fer to take eggs from them; third, find some sort of highly eth­i­cal egg you have to pay a lit­tle bit more for,” he says.

Who knows, one day soon they may be our only choices. * Name changed by re­quest.

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