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The inconvenient truth about ‘happy’ chooks

Richard Heath - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A lot of feathers have been ruffled in the debate on egg farming. Definitions of ‘free range’ are disputed and reviewed, ‘happy’ eggs command market premiums, cage farmers are targeted by activists. All this is based on the understandable public assumption that chooks living outside cages are intrinsically happier than those inside.

The recently concluded public consultation process on draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry has generated an enormous amount of interest, fuelling speculation that implementation of the standards could spell the end of caged egg production in Australia.

Perhaps anticipating consumer sentiment and attempting to get ahead of enforced change, Egg Farmers of Australia have announced any new battery cages must now be a bigger model with a perch and nesting box that houses 20 to 40 hens. However, RSPCA senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow called this a ‘token measure’ and predicted that the ‘vast majority’ of the 165,000 submissions to the enquiry would call for much stronger measures.

Opposition to the proposed changes in egg production is based on several factors, including cost and practicality of implementation, increased prices for consumers and negative animal welfare outcomes. But this seems counter-intuitive if the proposed changes are supposedly about increasing animal welfare. Surely using larger cages, or phasing out cage use altogether, leads to happier, healthier chooks? Well, perhaps not, taking the Californian industry as an example.

Multiple studies on the effect of similar changes to animal welfare standards in California suggest that applying a human standard of ‘happiness’ to chickens can have a perverse outcome.

In 2008, Californian voters passed Proposition 2 which required that egg-laying hens, pigs and calves be confined only in ways that “allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely”. The law took effect on 1 January 2015. The changes to cage size requirements were based on the presumption that larger cages would lead to happier chickens - a positive animal welfare outcome.

Before the vote, the University of California Agricultural Issues Centre, attached to UC-Davis, predicted that a consequence of larger cage sizes would be a decline in the number of chickens due to production moving out of state, and a subsequent increase in the retail egg price of about 25%. UC-Davis, for their troubles, was sued by the Humane Society of the United States (who sponsored the Proposition) for using ‘scare tactics’ against potential voters. Two years on from the implementation of Proposition 2 this analysis from Jayson Lusk showed that UC-Davis were, in fact, pretty much spot on with their predictions.

And what of the animal welfare outcomes? This excellent piece from Dr Alison Van Eenennaam summarises a large study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply which objectively measured a range of animal welfare outcomes. In short, as shown in the figure below, chickens that had been moved to either enriched colony (EC) or cage-free aviary (AV) systems were, on average, no better off than chickens in conventional caged (CC) systems. In fact, for the categories of mortality and cannibalism/aggression (which could be argued are very strong indicators of animal welfare), systems that allowed more space for chickens were considerably worse than caged systems. 

Based on the Californian experience, the concerns of the egg industry in Australia about system change seem to be pretty well founded. Of the 165,000 submissions to the Australian enquiry into poultry standards, how many were aware of the outcomes of Proposition 2? How many submissions said that an increase in mortality, painful keel damage and cannibalism is an acceptable price to pay for ‘happier’ chooks?

It is the worst kind of blind anthropomorphism to impose standards based on perceived ideas of animal happiness that available evidence suggests will lead to worse animal welfare outcomes – especially when those standards have the potential to negatively affect public health, as higher egg prices disproportionately impact lower socio-economic groups seeking cheap sources of protein.

It is also an unnecessary imposition. Alternatives to caged egg production are plentiful. Some of the most interesting and innovative egg businesses around sell their produce based on the provenance of pasture-grazed, free-range production. Businesses like Just Been Laid in the NSW Hunter Valley are thriving, supplying eggs for $10/dozen through a subscription model.

If the number of people prepared to vote with their wallets is as high as the RSPCA claims, then alternative production systems will continue to grow and caged egg production will slowly go out of business. If change is what people really want, it will be market-led through consumer choice. The enforcement of change for dubious animal welfare outcomes, and a resultant increased cost for consumers, must be questioned.

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