LAST UPDATED: 3 December 2020
The rules and regulations that define how Australian hens, chickens, ducks and other poultry are farmed are being reviewed for the first time in nearly 20 years.
And a lot's changed since then — from higher community expectations around the treatment of animals to the wealth of scientific evidence confirming the suffering inherent in factory farming.
Despite this — and despite a record-breaking public consultation — the new draft standards still fail to ensure all animals will have quality of life and protection from cruel treatment. Here's how our laws are failing farmed birds, and what needs to change...
Cages are traditionally used as a punishment. To deny freedom. To control. The cage egg industry took this idea of confinement — and turned it into a business model. Every year, in Australia alone, some 11 million gentle hens are imprisoned in cages so small they can't even stretch their wings. All so the cage egg industry can turn a bigger profit out of the smallest possible shed space.
The battery cage is without a doubt one of the cruellest farming devices ever invented. Typically, five or more hens are confined in each cage, in long rows of cages, and there are multiple rows also stacked vertically (sometimes up to six rows high) in these dim sheds. As newborn chicks the ends of their beaks are cut off to reduce aggressive pecking — a natural, frustrated response to the inability to walk and forage, or even to escape from cage mates trying to establish a (literal) 'pecking order'.
Once in the cages, these hens are forced to stand, sleep and lay their eggs on a wire mesh floor that can damage their feet, break their claws and rub off their feathers, exposing their sensitive skin.
Though 'domesticated' over many generations, a hen's natural instincts never leave her. Roosting, building a nest and laying in private, foraging and dust-bathing: these are the simple and essential pleasures that the cage egg industry denies hens. And if that wasn't bad enough, the lack of exercise — combined with a serious depletion of calcium due to constant egg laying — weakens their bones and means 4 in every 5 hens suffer from the crippling bone disease osteoporosis. Studies have also revealed that many caged hens suffer from metabolic fatty liver disease, and live in chronic pain, sometimes for months, with untreated broken bones.
After 18 months of this deprivation and pain, egg-laying hens — whose natural lifespan is some 12 years — are trucked to the slaughterhouse. They may go their whole lives without ever having seen the sun.
A hen will naturally go through a phase each year when, with the onset of colder weather and reduced food availability, she will stop laying eggs in order to conserve energy, and let her internal organs rest and recover from the intense strain of egg-laying.
During this time, she will shed her old, tired feathers (a process known as moulting) and grow a shiny new set. Come spring, with its warmth and abundance of food, she will begin laying eggs again with renewed vigour.
Cage, barn and free range egg producers realised they could 'trick' hens into laying more eggs by putting them through a false winter and forcing them to go through moulting… by severely reducing their food, i.e. starving them, for up to three weeks. Industry standards allow hens to be deprived of food and water for up to 24 hours at a time.
This practice of 'forced moulting' causes severe health and welfare problems for hens, including intense hunger, stress, a loss of up to 1/4 of their body weight, and a reduction in bone mineral density and content — which, especially for caged hens who are already suffering from osteoporosis, can be devastating.
From cage to free range, the risk of hens dying during forced moulting periods is significantly increased.
Egg producers that starve hens and put them through a moult can keep their 'stock' for another egg-laying season — at a significant cost to their welfare. Tragically, for factory farmed hens, this means they will be subjected to many more months of a deprived and painful existence in a battery cage.
Missing out on even one night of sleep is enough to unbalance most people's equilibrium. Our energy levels go down, and maybe we get cranky or upset. We stop operating like we should. In short, we all need a good few hours of darkness to shut our eyes, rest and recover.
But most chickens raised for their 'meat' in Australia live out their short, painful lives trapped in crowded sheds where it's nearly impossible to properly rest. For one thing, it's often not dark for very long — but it's not very light either. They can develop eye deformities and other health issues as they struggle to move about in the gloomy twilight. The dim light is meant to keep them docile, as producers don't want them moving around too much because that would exercise off valuable 'meat'. But sleep isn't 'desirable' either, because that's valuable time chickens should be eating and putting on more weight.
In the eyes of the factory farming industry, it seems the only 'job' chickens have is to sit and eat. The environment, combined with selective breeding for rapid growth, makes chickens grow so fast that they reach 'slaughter weight' when they're only 5-8 weeks old, and still chirping like babies.
This unnatural growing speed puts tremendous pressure on their joints and hearts and, within weeks of hatching, many of these young chickens will be so weighed down by their own bodies that they're unable to lift themselves off the manure on the floor. As a result, some may suffer from breast blisters, hock burn and chronic dermatitis. Others develop crippling lameness so severe they can't even move to reach food or water, and will die of starvation or dehydration.
Their health and welfare is so compromised that their likelihood of survival (or not) is built into the economics of running a chicken factory farm. The Australian Chicken Meat Federation website lists a 4% mortality rate in the sheds. This means that poor farm conditions and selective breeding combine to create a perfect storm of animal cruelty, resulting in over 25 million young chickens who suffer and die in farm sheds every single year — losses that are 'written off' as a usual part of doing business.
The parents of chickens raised for their meat fare no better. Called 'breeding stock' by the industry, these chickens are allowed to live for around a year before being sent to the slaughterhouse (rather than the 5-8 week lifespan of their young, or the 12 years chickens can naturally live) — but for most of that time they are chronically stressed.
Obviously of the same genetic makeup as their chicks, this breed has been intensively and selectively bred for 'rapid meat production'. Within a few months, both male and female parent birds have developed such a mass of breast tissue, and are physically so out of proportion, that they have difficulty moving freely and can suffer from serious health and welfare problems like lameness and debilitating foot pad dermatitis.
This propensity to put on 'meat' is exploited in their young, with farmers encouraging them to gorge themselves almost constantly. However, if the parent birds ate enough to satisfy themselves it would not only lower their reproductive capacity, but also cause many to die before they could breed, as their internal organs failed to keep up with this breed's abnormal muscle and weight gain.
To reduce these issues, these parent 'breeding stock' birds are essentially starved — with many often only fed every second day. This is particularly cruel, as these birds have been genetically selected by farmers to always be hungry — then denied the very thing they've been bred to do.
The independent review into Farmed Bird Welfare, commissioned by the Victorian Government, states that the evidence for these chickens suffering from chronic hunger is indisputible.
Ducks can live for some 12 years in their natural habitat — however farmed Australian ducks (or, more accurately, ducklings) are killed at around 6-7 weeks old.
Although their lives are cut so short, most farmed ducks experience deprivation and suffering in the few weeks before they reach 'slaughter weight'.
The report 'Like a duck out of water', compiled by Animal Liberation NSW, explains that not allowing ducks access to adequate water supplies is one of Australia's most shocking animal welfare concerns. Without it, ducks can't clean themselves properly, and are more susceptible to heat stress, respiratory illnesses, crusty eyes that can lead to blindness and crippling lameness.
Not having water to swim in stresses ducks out. And frustrated ducks can peck at each other — or even resort to cannibalism. Providing ducks with pools or troughs would go a long way to alleviating this stress, but instead, intensive duck farmers may maim them by cutting the ends off their sensitive bills.
There are no two ways around it: ducks need water — and lots of it — to live healthy and happy lives. Despite this, the vast majority of farmed Aussie ducks are denied the most natural thing in the world: enough water to swim in.
Most turkeys live out their short lives trapped in cramped sheds. They have been bred to develop fast, and as they grow they become so heavy that they may struggle to move. If they crouch to take the weight off their feet they risk lying down in ammonia-rich manure that may burn their chests and legs.
In such crowded conditions it's hardly surprising that turkeys may act out aggressively towards each other. The industry 'solution' for this? Instead of reducing the number of birds in farms, or providing the turkeys with more space and an interesting environment with perches, opportunities for scratching around and foraging — turkey producers 'trim' the birds' sensitive beaks without pain relief.
Their suffering doesn't end there. Turkeys today are the victims of an intensive program of selective breeding. Genetically chosen for maximum 'breast meat', this has resulted in large and malformed birds who — from as young as 10 weeks — may be lame, crippled by their own weight. In fact, farmed turkeys are so genetically changed that they can no longer even mate naturally, and the processes of 'extracting' sperm from the male toms and artificially inseminating the female hens raises further serious welfare concerns.
Their unnatural weight also causes problems at the slaughterhouse, where turkeys can be shackled and suspended by their feet upside down for up to 3 minutes before being killed. The pressure puts intense strain on their hips and legs, which can fracture or even break.
Chickens, hens, ducks and turkeys — these are the birds that we are most familiar with. Yet other birds are farmed in Australia too, including geese, guinea fowl, ostriches, partridge, pheasants and even our national emblem, the emu.
There may be fewer of these birds than chickens, but that does not mean the suffering they experience is any less. In fact, the peer-reviewed and independent Farmed Bird Welfare Science Review, commissioned by the Victorian Government, describes scientific findings that show that housing and husbandry practices permitted by current laws for poultry cause great suffering.
Despite this, the proposed draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry would continue to permit many of these animals to be subjected to the same crowding and cruel husbandry practices — such as surgical mutilations without pain relief — as hens and turkeys. Some, such as pigeons and quails, are also kept in cages, as revealed in Tamara Kenneally's investigative series, 'Fine Dining with Quail'.
No matter which species, all these animals are unique individuals, and equally as deserving of being spared pain and suffering, and finding joy in freedom.
After being forced to endure short, environmentally deprived, and often pain-filled lives, millions of young Australian birds — chickens, ducks, turkeys, as well as all the egg-laying hens who have reached the end of their 'economically useful' lives — are forced to face some of the most distressing handling, transport and slaughter imaginable.
Under the current draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines — Poultry, the killing of farmed birds is a long process — with the potential for animal suffering and cruelty every step of the way.
It begins with 'depopulation', which involves grabbing animals out of cages and from sheds and quickly pushing them into small cramped transport crates. Caged hens are particularly at risk during this time due to their weakened and brittle bones, and many will suffer broken or fractured bones during handling and transport.
At the slaughterhouse, some birds will be placed in CO2-filled chambers and gassed to death. At many slaughterhouses, birds may be shackled into ankle cuffs on a conveyor belt. They will be left hanging upside down for several minutes — a position which would cause great pain for animals who have been bred to be as heavy as possible, not to mention that many already suffer from weak and underdeveloped joints, or even broken bones.
From there, the suspended conveyor line moves and the birds' heads are dipped into an electrified-water stunning bath. The production line moves on, and the birds have their throats cut open by a spinning blade. They're assigned a few minutes to bleed to death before being dunked into scalding tanks of boiling water which are designed to remove their feathers.
But what happens when the rules fail?
As, tragically, they frequently do...
'High throughput' slaughterhouses operate on strict time schedules and, as abattoir investigations reveal again and again, there is often little opportunity — or incentive — to avoid animal cruelty.
Terrified animals may swing their heads out of the way of the electrified-bath and the mechanical blade. Others don't fully 'bleed out' in the allotted time. These birds — who aren't dead by the time the conveyor belt they're shackled to reaches the scalding tanks — will be dragged alive into boiling water, as exposed in a shocking investigation by animal protection campaigner and photographer, Tamara Kenneally and revealed on the ABC.
Note: This list covers just a portion of the serious health and welfare issues that face farmed birds in Australia today. If you'd like more information about the Standards or the Public Submission process, you can find out more at the links below:
- View the full Proposed Draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry
- Visit the Poultry Public Consultation homepage
This critical review of poultry welfare standards was supposed to begin in 2010 and it's faced ongoing delays since then. One thing's clear, animals need help now. We cannot sit back and wait for our laws to catch up with community sentiment. And the good news is, we don't have to.
No matter where, or how, they were raised, the overwhelming majority of animals bred for human consumption in Australia will end their days in a slaughterhouse. And the inescapable reality is that wherever animals are killed en masse, there will be terrible fear and suffering.
Improved Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines and independently monitored CCTV may help curb the most extreme abuse — but the 'normal' every day pain and terror will continue. That's because, ultimately, it's the demand for meat, eggs and dairy that fuels this relentless pressure to force animals along the slaughterhouse 'production line' as quickly as possible.
For these reasons, and so many more, 1 in 3 Aussies are choosing to remove themselves from this system by changing the way they eat. If you're curious about how easy (and delicious) it is to cut back on chicken and other animal products — or cut them out altogether — then you can find everything you need to know in our FREE Veg Starter Kit. You can order your very own copy right here, right now.