Monthly Archives: September 2014

Cage, barn or free range – does it make a difference?

Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Tranquilles

Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Tranquilles

Recently, McDonald’s has pledged to phase out the use of caged eggs within three years. Subway Australia followed swiftly. The company wants to switch to cage-free eggs within 12-18 months. Last year, Woolworths announced that it will phase out all caged eggs from sale and the use of caged eggs in the ingredients of its own brand products by December 2018. Coles brand eggs are already cage-free. They are either barn-laid or free range.

But does it make a difference? A difference to the hens? A difference to the egg consumer?

Let’s first examine what the terms “cage”, “barn” and “free range” mean.

The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals. Domestic Poultry 4th Edition, endorsed by the Primary Industries Ministerial Council in May 2002, provides these definitions:

Birds in cage systems are continuously housed in cages within a shed.

Birds in barn systems are free to roam within a shed which may have more than one level. The floor may be based on litter and/or other material such as slats or wire mesh.

Birds in free-range systems are housed in sheds and have access to an outdoor range. (p. 2)

The Model Code also provides minimum standards. The minimum stocking density in a caged system is 550 cm2 per hen in cages with three or more birds with a weight of up to 2.4 kg, or 600 cm2 per hen in cages with three or more birds that weigh more than 2.4 kg (p. 25). This is approximately the size of an A4 sheet of paper.

For non-caged systems, the indoor minimum stocking density is 30 kg live weight per square metre (p. 27). Assuming the average hen weighs 2.4 kg, this allows 12.5 birds per square metre. The space covered by feeding and watering equipment is included in these measurements.

Indoors, the maximum acceptable live weight density for free-range birds is the same as that for non-caged systems (see above). Outdoors, a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare is considered adequate by the Model Code. However, a higher density is acceptable in certain circumstances (p. 28). The consumer advocacy group Choice claims that almost a third of eggs sold with a free range label have a stocking density more than 13 times greater.

An A4 size space per bird in barns does not allow for natural behaviours, such as running, dust bathing, perching or stretching wings. In free-range systems, which indoors allow a similarly crowded space as barn systems, will hens be able to make their way to the outdoor area?

Choice writes on its website that Australia has no official national standard for free range eggs, and the label on the egg carton can have any number of meanings depending on the producer.

Without an official standard for free range products, consumers are at real risk of being misled by businesses wanting to cash in on the premium that a free range product attracts.

Similarly, Animals Australia observes that there are no consistent or legally enforceable definitions for egg production systems in Australia. The animal advocacy organisation provides a handy chart and flyer with details of the birds’ living conditions according to various claims on egg carton labels.

Cage, barn or free-range – does it make a difference to the birds?

Common to all types of commercial egg production is that male chicks are killed at birth, and that hens are sent to slaughter from the age of 18 months, although their natural lifespan is around 10 years. That’s similar to the lifespan of a large dog.

No, the type of commercial egg production does not make a difference to the approximately 12 million male chicks in Australia that are killed each year on the first day of their lives.

No, it does not make a difference to the layer hens who have their lives cut short.

Whether a hen lives in a cramped cage with a small number of other hens or in a barn as crowded as that in the photo below, does it make a difference to a hen’s quality of life?

 

Source: TOPTENZ

Source: TOPTENZ

Will she, surrounded by thousands of other hens, feel as safe as in a cage that is also crowded, but has not as many competitors for space, food and drink? I’m not sure what the answer to these questions is.

There are also claims that a caged system is advantageous to the health of hens and that of the egg consumer.

Dr Peter Scott, consultant veterinarian to the intensive poultry industry and senior research fellow at Melbourne University, warns that in free-range systems

… old bacterial diseases are re-emerging, internal and external parasites and unfortunately in this country we don’t have the tools to control it.

Brian Ahmed, a farmer and president of the Victorian Farmers Federation Egg Group, claims that

by moving to a cage-controlled system from free-range egg farming, we reduced the rates of disease in the birds, we better protected them from predators and parasites, they produce cleaner and more affordable eggs, and we’ve reduced their mortality rate to 1%.

(And by the way, I commend Mr Ahmed for inviting journalists to visit his farm and take photos)

Cage, barn or free-range – does it make a difference to the egg consumer?

Yes, I think it does. And I’m not only referring to the increased price of free-range eggs. Considering the living conditions of layer hens and being prepared to pay more for eggs that are believed to be produced in more humane conditions shows compassion. And compassion for the plight of our fellow non-human animals asserts our humanity. Compassion does make a difference to our world.

It is impractical for most egg consumers to investigate in person the hens’ living arrangements and they take their information from the egg carton label. But carton labels do not provide an accurate picture of the hens’ living conditions, and consumers are fooled.

Conversely, much information about the dreadful conditions forced on hens in commercial farming is publicly and freely available. Once we become aware of this information, the only compassionate choice is to give up commercially produced eggs. And yes, we can live well without eggs.

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Animal abuse – The violence that breeds violence

Chickens in factory farming

Chickens in factory farming. Source: Wikimedia/ Maqi

Recently, the RSPCA in Western Australia reported a 100% increase in deliberate animal bashings in the first half of 2014. Meanwhile, the ABC informed us that bow and arrow attacks on wildlife are on the rise. And let’s not forget that each year more than 500 million animals suffer in factory farms in Australia. A proportion of these “food animals” are also subject to non-sanctioned cruelty which is usually recorded in under-cover operations. The Aussie Farms website, for example, displays a harrowing collection of such images and video clips.

In Australia, states and territories have legislation that prohibits animal cruelty. Aggression towards animals is abhorrent and can result in fines or imprisonment. It can also tell us something about perpetrators of violent crimes against people.

Family violence

The link between animal abuse and family violence is well established. Animal abuse is a recognised predictor and indicator for violence towards humans.

Acts or threats to kill an animal companion and cruelty towards animals are commonly used to coerce, control and intimidate women, children and older people. The threat of animal cruelty prevents many women from leaving a violent relationship.

Children

Children often witness the cruelty. An Australian study found that children who had witnessed animal cruelty committed significantly more animal abuse than children from non-violent families.

Children who abuse animals often “progress” to violence against people. For example, one study found that criminals were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people if they had a history of abusing animals in their youth. They are also more likely to commit other, non-violent crimes such as property crimes, or drug or disorderly‐conduct offenses.

Legal violence

Turkeys in factory farming

Turkeys in factory farming. Source: Wikimedia/ Mercy for Animals

Legal violence towards animals can also

escalate into other, illegal forms of violence. A study from the U.S. found increased crime in slaughterhouse communities, in particular those communities with large, industrialised slaughterhouses. Compared with communities that had manufacturing industries and were otherwise similar, slaughterhouse employment increased total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses. The authors of the study noted that many of these offenses were perpetrated against those with less power, and they interpreted this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children.

In Australia, a Queensland study compared attitudes toward animals and the propensity for aggression between farmers, meatworkers and the general community. Farmers and meatworkers showed lower pro-animal welfare attitudes compared to a geographically similar community sample. This may be an indication that workers in the primary industry have a utilitarian view toward animals, that they view animals as commodities.

The meatworkers scored substantially higher on aggression than farmers. The researchers noted that the meatworkers’ aggression and hostility scores were similar to those of prison populations. Surprisingly, female farmers and meatworkers scored significantly lower on pro-animal welfare attitudes than their male counterparts and lower than male and female community members. Among meatworkers, women were found to be more aggressive than men. Female meatworkers showed also more aggression than male and female farmers.

Basket with vegetables

Basket with vegetables. Source: Wikimedia/ liz west

Meat-free diet

Some people claim that a non-violent diet affects people’s behaviour. This goes beyond the fact that many vegans have chosen a meat-free diet for ethical reasons. A prison in California offered its inmates a program comprised of a vegan diet, bible studies, occupational training and anger management. Eighty-five percent of the inmates opted for the program and over the seven years of the program’s life extraordinary changes in the prison population took place: the inmates gradually became less aggressive and racial tension and gang violence stopped. After their release, fewer than two percent were re-arrested, compared to California’s 95% recidivism rate. Inmates also reported having more energy and stamina, minimized acne, and clearer minds. However, this program had several components and it is difficult to know the extent to which the vegan diet played a role.

Yet another study compared vegetarians and meat eaters in regard to empathy towards humans and positive attitudes towards companion animals. There were no differences between vegetarian and non-vegetarian women. But vegetarian men showed more empathic concerns and were more likely to be able to consider another person’s perspective than meat eating males. They also had a more positive attitude toward companion animals.

Violence against animals comes in many shades. It is pervasive in our society. Thus, a rise in violent crimes against animals is of concern not only because it is ethically wrong to treat other sentient beings in this way. Violence against animals, as a marker of family violence and a precursor or indicator of other forms of crime, needs to be taken as seriously as violence against humans.

U.S. style ag-gag laws that intend to hide animal cruelty by making undercover footage of animal abuse in factory farms illegal are counterproductive. Violence towards animals is an act of aggression against innocent nonhuman victims. In addition, it has repercussions for us humans. We need to tackle it head-on.

Pig and piglets in a gestation crate

Pig and piglets in a gestation crate. Source: Wikimedia/ Maqi