HARD CLUCK STORY
How to make eggs without breaking chickens
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
THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE TO SUGGEST ANY NUTRITIONAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CAGE, BARN AND FREE RANGE EGGS …
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
[RESCUE HENS ARE] FRIENDLY AND INQUISITIVE. THEY COME UP TO US LIKE, “OH, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” THE OTHERS ONLY COME UP FOR FOOD.
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
A RESCUE HEN WITH BRIGHT RED FEATHERS WAS NAMED SCARLET. THE OTHER we NAMED BLOSSOM, “BECAUSE WE KNEW SHE WOULD”.
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.