There’s been lots of discussion over the last few weeks relating to egg and meat chicken production in Australia. This is a good thing. These conversations are bringing the production of chickens into the public arena and hopefully encouraging people to have a greater understanding of where their eggs and chicken meat comes from.
It’s no surprise that consumers are confused about labelling terms. In fact, an RSPCA survey showed that 1 in 4 consumers find animal welfare labels confusing and 1 in 3 consumers don’t trust such labels at all. And who can blame them when all these terms are thrown at them when choosing products in the supermarket.
The consumer has grown to associate the term ‘free range’ with good animal welfare. But to the RSPCA, good welfare is more than simply allowing animal’s access to the outdoors.
It’s important that consumers begin to understand that welfare goes beyond marketing on pack, brand and product advertising and they look for independent welfare certification by a reputable organisation on eggs and meat.
To make an informed choice, education is key!
Consumers need to understand what ‘conventional’ farming involves and the conditions under which the vast majority of layer hens and meat chickens are raised in Australia. While concern of the welfare issues associated with caged hens is high amongst Australians, few know or understand the welfare issues associated with the production of meat chickens.
First up, chickens that are used for meat production (also called broiler chickens) are very different from layer hens. Adding to the confusion are media clips that talk about the plight of meat chickens but show pictures of layer hens, when in actual fact they’re different birds.
Meat Chickens are bred to grow and gain weight very rapidly. They’ve been genetically selected to produce large breast muscle and will grow to slaughter weight in 35 days. They’re not grown in cages (unlike 12 million egg laying hens in Australia) and are not fed hormones.
While they’re not grown in cages like laying hens, the majority of meat chickens are farmed indoors (in barns/sheds), in systems that may house up to 60,000 birds in a single shed. Meat chickens may be kept in dim light for 23 hours a day to discourage movement and increase food intake, which basically makes them very meaty, very quickly. The majority of meat chickens in Australia live in barren environments with no possibility for behavioural stimulation.
Meat chickens in these systems can suffer some serious problems, including:
+ leg problems, including lameness and bone breakages
+ heart and eye abnormalities
+ feet and hock burns
+ breast blisters.
The large size of the chickens also affects stocking density, especially at the end of the growing period. Lack of space results in lack of exercise, which increases the incidence of lameness. This, in turn, increases the birds’ contact with the litter, causing foot pad burn, hock burn and breast blisters if the litter is not well managed. Chickens may die from heat stress caused by the cramped conditions in the shed.
The RSPCA is working directly with farmers to improve the welfare of meat chickens. The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme includes production standards for meat chickens which can be raised indoors in sheds/barns or in a system where birds can access an outdoor area (Free Range). The RSPCA Standards are based on catering for the birds physical and behavioural needs.
By reducing stocking density, providing appropriate lighting and providing an environment that encourages natural behaviour, significant welfare problems can be prevented. The RSPCA is also interested in seeing a slower growing bird introduced into Australian meat chicken production.