[On Line opinion]
While scientists and philosophers continue to debate the age-old dilemma of "which comes first, the chicken or the egg", the answer for Australia's ten million caged layer or "battery" hens is patently clear. Despite increasing community awareness about the plight of battery hens, the vast majority of Australia's egg laying flock today spend their short lives warehoused with hundreds of thousands of others, confined in small cages in which they are unable to preen, nest, stretch their wings or exercise the bulk of their natural behaviours. Many layer hens also live in a permanent state of disfigurement (PDF 63KB), following the forced removal of part of their beak, being the sensory organ with which they make sense of their world.
In a time when Australia purports to be a "world leader in animal welfare", the widespread acceptance of such practices highlights a failure on the part of lawmakers to keep pace with international animal law reforms aimed at phasing out the worst aspects of institutionalised animal abuse or "factory farming".
Legislative framework for layer hen welfare In Australia, as in many other industrialised nations, millions of chickens are bred each year specifically for the purpose of egg production. The law classifies these animals as property or "live stock". This is often reflected in the way that they are marketed; as products with "favourable genetic characteristics" such as high output or producers of superior quality eggs. It is also reflected in the way they are treated; as egg-laying machines that need to be maintained with minimum levels of food, water, shelter and veterinary care.
While free-ranging chickens were once a common feature of the Australian agricultural landscape, the corporatisation of animal production in recent decades has resulted in the concentration of egg production in giant facilities with up to 500,000 birds per farm. On these factory farms, hens are confined indoors in conventional or "battery cages", which are stacked in tiers on top of each other. Each hen has between three and 20 cage mates. Hens in battery cages spend their lives in artificially lit surroundings designed to maximise laying activity. They are allocated the space equivalent of little more than an A4 sized piece of paper, which is insufficient room to exercise most natural behaviours such as preening, nesting, foraging and dust bathing.
As hens raised in battery cages spend their time continually standing on sloping wire floors designed to facilitate egg collection, many experience chronic pain from the development of lesions and other foot problems. Permanent confinement combined with the unnaturally high demands of egg production may also result in physical disabilities such as reduced bone strength and muscle weakness. Hens raised in barren battery cage environments generally live for about 12 months before being slaughtered due to reduced productivity. However, in some instances, to increase cost-efficiency, producers induce a process called forced moulting. This involves feeding hens a modified diet, intended to restore shell quality and productivity. It generally results in hens being kept alive, albeit in confinement, for a further year.
The continuing refusal by Australian State and Territory Ministers to take a leadership position with respect to the banning of battery cages stands in stark contrast to developments overseas. For example, in the European Union, the phase out of battery cages is in progress following the passing of a Council Directive in 1999. Under the EU Directive, the installation of new battery cages has been prohibited since January 2003. Additionally, EU member countries are required to phase out all battery cages by 2012. Certain nations such as Sweden and Austria for example, have taken proactive steps to ban battery cages prior to the Directive taking effect. Under the Directive, battery cages are to be replaced with alternative systems known as "enriched" cages, barn, or free-range systems.
The "enriched" cage system provides each hen with 600cm? of usable space per hen, which is 50cm? more than the current Australian standard for battery cages. Enriched cages also differentiate from battery cages in that they can contain nesting boxes, litter to enable foraging, and perches. While these are important symbolic improvements, enriched cages still condemn hens to a life of confinement and fall short of meeting their behavioural needs.
Although it is important to acknowledge the legislative progress made for hens in the EU, the real victory to date lies in the support that consumers are demonstrating for alternatives to the battery cage system of egg production. Recently, sales of cage-free eggs have overtaken sales of battery eggs in the UK and Ireland. While cage-free egg sales in Australia are notably lower (at less than 30 per cent of total egg production), free-range and barn laid markets have expanded significantly in recent years. As more Australians continue to support cage-free production, they send a strong message to politicians to fall into line with popular expectations by ending the widespread abuse associated with battery cage production.
Australia continues to lag shamefully behind when it comes to providing meaningful improvements in hen welfare. In light of this, increasing retail support for cage-free eggs in domestic markets should be construed as a message to our legislators that Australians care about the treatment of animals and that the time has come to place the chicken before the egg.