Not all chickens are born equal. Nor are pigs, nor are sheep, for that matter.
That’s the bald truth of the matter. And the problem with this, aside from health issues for the animals themselves, is that consumers have no idea where their produce is coming from or how it got there. They think they do, but they don’t.
Even if animals are raised well, there’s no guarantee they will meet a humane end as the latest round of abattoir cruelty scandals hit the media earlier this month.
And there’s little in the way of peace-of-mind to distinguish between those producers and graziers who do do the right thing and those who game the system and make their animals suffer.
All this comes as animal welfare organisation Voiceless launches a new advertising campaign to raise awareness about the realities of factory farming in Australia. The commercials come with the added star-power of Hugo Weaving and Abbie Cornish.
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And Abbie Cornish has this to say:
“Ultimately, each of us must respond to animal cruelty in our own way and the response is often a journey, where the starting point is learning the truth that lies behind your fork,” said Dana Campbell, Voiceless CEO.
That’s because ‘farm to fork’ labels are misleading at best. So, let’s get a feel for what we’re dealing with.
Raising animals in Australia
Industry chickens are bred for two reasons and two reasons only. For their eggs, or for their meat.
Battery hens, the machine-line egg producers, are almost universally assured a life without sunlight or open spaces. Many are kept in cages four-apiece with less than an A4 sized piece of paper to live in, according to welfare groups. There are 11 million of these battery hens in Australia.
The birds are animals and they have animal urges. Things like dust-bathing, perching, ‘the very strong desire’ to lay their eggs in private spots. None of this happens for a battery hen. As many as one in six live with broken bones as their cage conditions weaken their skeletons.
When their egg laying rate inevitably slows, the hens are disposed of, around the age of 18 months. Male chicks don’t even make it that far. They are gassed or otherwise ‘ground up’ when they are born.
Meat chickens are a slightly different story. There are more than 400 million in Australia, raised to stack on the meat at three times their usual growth rate and slaughtered at five weeks. The forced weight-gain often results in the animals being crippled under the strain, or breaking bones altogether.
It is legal to grow the birds in sheds with as many as 20 per square metre. It’s a confinement which leads to disease, heat stroke and heart failure in the cramped conditions.
The National Farmers Federation disagrees with these statements. We asked for a response:
“The chicken meat industry is governed by a government, industry and RSPCA-endorsed Model Code of Practice. Under this Code, no cages are the size of an A4 piece of paper. Single bird cages are rare, and are about the size of two A4 pieces of paper. Modern cages in commercial production measure up to the size of 20 pieces of A4 paper, while in the majority of meat chicken sheds, the chickens have access to the entire floor – around 12-15 metres wide by 80-140 metres long.
Australian cage egg farmers have invested up to $500 million to upgrade their cage farms so that they comply with new legislation across the States that came into effect in 2008. Industry bodies do not support egg farmers who do not comply with the new legislation.
It is important to remember that hens are social animals and choose to cluster together.
This statement [that meat chickens cannot handle extra weight] is completely untrue – the conditions they are reared in do not lead to bone breakages due to weakened bones or weight. Claims that chickens bred for meat are too big for their owns legs or cardiovascular systems are simply wrong. It simply doesn’t make sense for farmers to breed birds with physical problems that never make it to market.
In fact, meat chickens have been selectively bred over the past 60 years to be more efficient at transforming feed into meat, as well as other important characteristics such as strong skeletal development and disease resistance.”
There’s a darker side to milk. Dairy cows are kept in a state of near-constant pregnancy, that they might produce the milk we’re used to having with our cereal. But the ‘poddy calves’ or ‘bobby calves’ are surplus to requirements and some 700,000 are destroyed each year and sold for meat. That would be the veal some of us love to order at restaurants.
The calves are taken from their mothers after a day and trucked away, sometimes going without food for a day at a time.
Then they are slaughtered.
Cattle are generally raised free-to-roam on large slabs of land in Australia, but associated animal husbandry practices are not always humane.
The RSPCA says fire branding (hot pokers that are pushed into the rump of the beast) is an ‘unacceptable’ form of branding but this does not mean it doesn’t happen.
Australia’s huge geography means that most welfare problems for beef cattle arise in their transport to abattoirs and conditions before and during slaughter. The animals are held in feedlots before slaughter which are far more confined and can stress cattle out if they are handled incorrectly, not fed properly or exposed to extreme heat and weather. Feedlots make up between 30 and 40% of the beef market.
Pigs have the intelligence of a toddler many are subjected to factory farming where they are given no room to move and, you know, be pigs. Piglets have their teeth cut or filed back to ‘prevent damage’ to the sows from which they suckle. Those same sows are confined to tiny spaces for 16 weeks, unable to turn around or make themselves comfortable. When pregnant they are moved to an even smaller farrowing crate, immediately before giving birth.
The National Farmers Federation responded:
“People often ask why sows are kept in individual housing. It’s because pigs can be aggressive animals and aggression between sows increases in the early stage of pregnancy. During this vulnerable time, individual housing is the best way to ensure sows are getting food and are totally protected from bullying, bites, injuries and the increased chance of miscarrying their babies.
Similarly, farrowing crates are used to protect piglets. The average sow weighs over 250 kilograms – equivalent to three standard fridges. During the short period new piglets are suckling, they are extremely vulnerable to being crushed to death by their mother, so the temporary use of farrowing crates play a crucial role in protecting piglets from being crushed.
On some farms, sows have piglets in a free range environment, and once weaned, the piglets are moved into group housing, eco sheds or shelters. This is for a number of reasons: it helps protect the pigs from predators and from the elements of the weather (pigs suffer from sunburn, and are very susceptible to extreme temperatures), and ensures that the pigs receive the nutrition they need as their feed can be monitored.
Of course, the Australian pork industry recognises that there is always room for improvement in housing systems and practices and that is why the industry has spent millions each year on research and much more on innovation and on-farm improvements to get the balance right.
Strong progress has been made and innovations to improve welfare are gaining ground. A deadline has been imposed for farmers to cut the maximum time a sow is allowed to stay in a stall by more than half, to just the most vulnerable first 6 weeks of pregnancy. The pork industry is also introducing a Certified Free Range certification under its existing on-farm quality assurance program, so that customers are guaranteed that the pork they’re buying has been raised outdoors for its entire life.”
Kangaroos are shot and killed in huge numbers for their meat and skins, but not always ‘humanely’ as is required by the industry code of practice.
As many as four cent are not killed with a head-shot as required and there are no figures to suggest how many are maimed and survive.
Believe it or not, ‘free range’ doesn’t mean anything unless it’s a label slapped on to the side of a carton of eggs.
According to law firm Swaab:
“Australia has consumer protection laws and food safety laws which cover many aspects of food labelling. However, problematically, there is no federal legislation requiring farming systems for animal-derived food products to be identified on product labels.
Consequently, the term “free range” is not subject to any legislative definition. Any restrictions on the use of the term are currently limited to egg carton labelling. It is therefore left to food producers, animal rights groups and the industry to determine what “free range” means for them. Generally, consumers assume that the term “free range” indicates that animals are not kept in close confinement, have access to the outside and are treated humanely. However, the term is open to broad interpretation and can easily be manipulated by producers and marketers.”
It’s actually easier to be surer of organic food, as it’s designed to meet strict international standards even though our domestic standards may be a little lacking. If you’re after an organic supplier nearby, try this website.
We’ll give the final word to the National Farmer’s Federation:
“For Australian farmers, their animals are their living, so looking after their welfare is not only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Australian farmers are committed to ensuring their animals are healthy and well cared for.
Farmers take animal welfare very seriously. There is strict legislation governing animal production and welfare in each state and territory, under the prevention of cruelty to animals, or state animal welfare acts, and this is enforced by the RSPCA or the state or territory Department of Primary Industries (or equivalent).
As with all things, we recognise that there is a need for continual improvement. As such, there’s a jointly developed strategy to outline directions for future improvements in the welfare of animals – this is called the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy and was developed by the Australian Government, state and territory governments, industry and the community, including animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA.
In addition, there are also model codes of practice for the welfare of animals, as well as a new series of nationally agreed standards and guidelines that are currently being developed. These standards will be legislated by the states and territories, and these governments are currently working to implement the first of these, around the land transport of livestock, in conjunction with farming organsiations and the RSPCA.
In short, the animal welfare practices used by Australian farmers are governed by law, codes of practice, and shortly, standards and guidelines. These are developed in conjunction with vets, regulators and welfare groups and are enforceable by law, policed by state authorities and backed by the threat of prosecution and severe penalties, including jail terms.
As a result, we believe Australian farmers adhere to animal welfare practices that are not only agreed, but approved by animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA.”
What do you think? How much do you think about where your food comes from, do you care? Or is ignorance bliss?
Disclaimer: Rick is a carnivore who was raised on a cattle station.