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On Food Choices, part 5: surplus to requirements #1


Caged hens as a source of eggs can’t be ethically justified unless you think that having an area no larger than an A4 sheet of paper to live in, standing on wire, beak cutting to stop pecking of other hens, not being able to engage in natural behaviours, physical pain, injury and death are all okay.

Read the RSPCA’s short article Why battery cages are cruel if you think otherwise:

If you already buy cage free eggs in the supermarket, either barn or free range, you will be surprised to know that more than 11 million hens, or 70% of Australia’s hens, are still confined to a battery cage.

Hens in battery cages are constantly frustrated that they can’t do the things that come naturally to hens – spread their wings, walk freely, dust bathe, forage, lay their egg in a nest.

Battery cages cause physical pain, injury and death.

Australia is falling behind. Battery cages were phased out in the EU by 2012, and will be phased out in New Zealand from 2012. Canadian egg farmers have committed to an industry-led phase-out, while in the US, several states have either ended battery cage farming, stopped construction of further cages, or begun a phase-out.

They conclude that:

Battery cages are indefensible from a welfare point of view. The science is in, consumers and many major businesses are making the switch. It’s time for the Australian egg industry to stop clinging to the past, and catch up.

As mentioned in part 1, Karen and I have been choosing free range eggs for quite awhile now with the help of apps like CluckAR. Determining what constitutes free range and what doesn’t can be tricky though. As we’ve discovered, the number of birds and the conditions under which they are kept vary wildly under the “free range” or “cage free” banners, e.g. in a barn, out in the open.

But whether caged, barn, free range, there are two remaining problems: male chicks and “spent” hens.

Male chicks

From this RSPCA KnowledgeBase page:

In the egg industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the hatchery. Sexing chicks (determining whether they are a hen or a rooster) requires considerable skill and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.

If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up. Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.

Male chicks are killed for two reasons: they cannot lay eggs and they are not suitable for chicken-meat production. This is because layer hens — and therefore their chicks — are a different breed of poultry to chickens that are bred and raised for meat production. Layer hens are bred to produce eggs whereas meat chickens are bred to grow large breast muscle and legs.

It concludes with this:

The RSPCA continues to urge the egg industry to invest in alternatives…For example, research into alternatives to allow chick sex to be determined in the early egg incubation phase should be urgently progressed.

New Australian gene technology aims to do exactly that:

Recent advances in gene technology mean that it is now possible to differentiate between male and female chicks pre-hatch. This discovery provides an opportunity to improve animal production, reduce costs and eliminate ethical dilemmas in the egg laying and related industries.

An additional benefit of this technology is the potential to use the male eggs to protect people from influenza viruses. For example, human influenza vaccines are generally grown by vaccine manufacturers in fertilised chicken eggs. The pre-hatched male eggs that are no longer required by the layer industry could then be used to help produce seasonal flu vaccines.

“Spent” hens 

From this RSPCA frequently asked questions page about layer hens:

A hen is declared ‘spent’ when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point she is considered less profitable and removed from the production system.

The process of removing ‘spent’ hens is known as ‘depopulation’ where hens are manually caught by human ‘catchers’ (up to 5 hens per hand) and placed into crates ready for transport.

There can be welfare issues during depopulation. For example, time pressures and rough handling often lead to injuries such as bone fractures.

Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted, or transported to an abattoir for slaughter. Some of the meat from spent hens may be exported, while other options may include pet food, and lower-quality processing meat for human consumption (for example in soups and stocks.)

For these reasons, and the more general argument about animals-as-means-to-our-ends from part 3 I choose not to consume eggs anymore, where possible.

There is always the option of keeping your own hens or sourcing them from a local community that raises them ethically. For poor communities there’s a lot of sense in this.

Part 6: surplus to requirements #2

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