Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Farm Animal Scientific Officer Dr Sarah Babington and Senior Policy Officer Dr Jed Goodfellow.
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Opening quote: You've just got this whole array of animal welfare issues that inherently can't be improved and these cage systems just lead to a kind of mass suffering and distress, and injuries for these animals.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today we're talking about eggs. Specifically, the type of egg production that sees millions of hens in Australia kept in barren battery cages for their entire laying life. And to get us across the facts. We have Dr. Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy officer at RSPCA Australia and Dr. Sarah Babington, Scientific Officer for farm animals at RSPCA Australia. Welcome to the podcast Jed and Sarah.
Jed & Sarah: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: Now, given over the last 10 years or so the awareness of this issue and the purchase of cage free eggs in supermarket has grown quite a bit. Some people may think that battery cages are a thing of the past, but that's certainly not the case, isn't it?
Jed: Now unfortunately not Brian, we have seen a decline in market share for caged eggs, which has been really fantastic to see. So, cage eggs now at the supermarket level have dipped well below 50% of eggs being bought, but because our overall consumption of eggs has increased, we've seen a fairly constant number of hens inside battery cages. So, in Australia, we currently have around 10 million hens in battery cages. So that's really, you know, gravely disappointing to see and just shows the urgency of this issue.
Brian: And Sarah, you're a vet with a focus on farm animals, what are the animal welfare issues associated with these intensive cage systems compared with say free range and barn systems?
Sarah: So, the cage systems have unfortunately some inherent animal welfare issues. So, these are animal welfare issues that will never be changed out of the system. And some of them being obviously, these birds are confined in a very small wire cage. So, as you can imagine, this restricts their movement. So, they can't stretch or flap their wings they’re constantly on these wire floors, they can't perch. So, you get a lot of bone and muscle weakness problems for these birds. And in a cage system, you have the highest rate of non-infectious diseases, so metabolic diseases like fatty liver, and disuse osteoporosis, so this is brittle bones, which becomes a real problem later in life for them. Not only because they have a lot of bone issues, and a lot of pain associated with that, but also when they're taking these birds out of the cages at the end of their lives, or you can get the highest rate of fractures injuries. And so, as you can imagine, that's a lot of suffering for the bird. You're also obviously have the problem with these birds being confined in such small cages that they can't perform a natural behaviours that they're motivated or want to do, things like the wing flapping scratching on the ground, dust bathing, perching foraging, and one of the most important ones being these birds aren't actually provided nests. So, we're expecting these birds to lay eggs, which we then, you know, get to benefit from. And they're not provided nests, which they're really motivated to use to lay their eggs, which can cause a lot of frustration and distress for these birds. And then I guess another point is that they can't actually escape other birds because they're stuck in these cages with several birds to each cage. So things like when other birds are aggressive, or issues like feather pecking, so when birds are frustrated, as they are in cages, you can get increased feather pecking, so they actually will peck at each other, which can which can also lead to cannibalism. So, you've just got this whole array of animals welfare issues that inherently can't be improved and these cage systems and just lead to kind of mass suffering and distress and injuries for these animals.
Brian: So it just takes away the opportunity for a hen to behave like a hen.
Sarah: Yes, yeah. And there just is no ability for him to be a hen, as you said, and it's just no quality of life. And for these birds throughout their period in these cages.
Brian: It seems to be quite implausible that this is still the case in in Australia, but the tiny cages really, aren't they?
Jed: Yeah, so each hen gets around 550 square centimetres of space, which equates to less than an a4 size sheet of paper in floor space per bird. So, it is not a lot of room for the hens to move about. And indeed, not only can't they express innate behaviours, they can even extend their limbs, they can even flap their wings. So that's a level of confinement that the hens are subjected to in the battery cage system.
Brian: Obviously, there's this there's been some reason why this has developed in this way. And one point the egg industry often make is that the cage systems are easier to monitor from a hygiene and disease control perspective, is that true? I mean, we seem to have a lot of barn laid and free range eggs in Australia. And so we don't have much trouble there. So does any of this hold true?
Sarah: So one argument is that the cage systems are a lot more controlled, obviously, because you have these birds confined to these small little cages, so you can have a lot more control over their environment. So infectious diseases, so like your bacterial or viral diseases can often be higher in a barn system or free range system, purely because you've got so many more birds around each other, and usually on like a floor, so the disease can spread a lot faster. However, with appropriate management, biosecurity, and all of you know, controlling the ventilation or the litter systems and whatnot for these birds. It can be controlled really well in a barn or a free range system, whereas the caged system, the animal welfare issues in that are inherent, and the only benefit to it is that you may have more control of your environment and therefore you don't need to the management isn't as intensive or as much effort as it may be in a bond and free range system.
Brian: So the cruelty is built into the system?
Sarah: Yes, so there's no way that you can improve or minimize the welfare problems in a cage system. Whereas in a barn and free range system, the issues and the arguments about disease risk can all be managed appropriately with really good management techniques.
Brian: And I guess the heightened stress levels of the birds in cages can't be good for their health, their immune system, and so on I imagine?
Sarah: Whenever an animal is stressed, there's obviously going to decrease the immune system and your animals don't going to be optimally functioning as we know when we get stressed. You know, often you'll find you get sick when you get stressed, so to speak. So it’s exactly the same for birds.
Brian: And there's a solution proposed by the industry about moving to furnished cages. Can you tell us about furnished cages and how they differ from battery cages? And are they in fact a viable solution?
Sarah: Yes, well furnished cage is a little bit bigger than your normal battery cage. And they may have some things like a perch in there, or some litter for dust bathing. And sometimes they'll be lucky enough to have a nest in there for the bird. Whereas the battery cage doesn't even have a nest for birds to lay their eggs in. So birds can, you know, perform some more behaviours, and they may have a bit more room. However, it's in no means a complete solution because they're still extremely restricted in terms of movement. And they still aren't able to fully perform all of the behaviours they really want to perform and the behaviours that make them you know, the hens that we think they should be.
Brian: So the solution is obviously not to have them in cages at all, but in house systems where they can express all these behaviours that hens should be expressing. So, and you mentioned before the welfare considerations with every system, what are the potential issues there with barn and free range systems and how they can be managed?
Sarah: Yeah, so I can touch on the welfare issues with barn and free range systems. And then I'll let Jed talk about how achievable moving towards full barn and free range systems are, in barn and freer range systems the birds have so much more room, they're able to perform natural behaviours a lot more. They can, you know, dust bathe, and stretch their wings and forage and nest and perch. And so that leads to a lot better leg health. You don't have the same issues, like you do in caged systems. You don't get as much disuse osteoporosis or brittle bones, and you often have better behaviour. So yeah, it's definitely your best option.
Jed: In terms of the feasibility of transitioning away from the cage system to non cage systems, it certainly can be done indeed. 56 percent of the eggs sold at the retail level in Australia come from non cage eggs. So that's evidence there in itself that is can be done on a large scale basis. And we see the experience in other nations around the world who have made this transition happen already that they've got very successful, well functioning egg industries. Indeed, they've seen higher revenue growth to the sector, higher jobs in their sector, because non caged eggs do require further labour to manage the system. And because they're producing a higher value product in being a non caging. They're actually receiving a greater degree of revenue to their sector as well. So we're seeing very good outcomes there in those countries that have made the transition happen. Some of those countries will still have furnished cages operating. But we're seeing with the market developments and the market changes and commitments to going cage free that investment in those furnish cages is a very risky investment because many of the major retailers, the major food brands are saying to their industries and to their customers that they will not have any caged eggs in their supply chains. And many are making the commitment to do that by 2025. So we certainly think that the industry in Australia would be better off investing in bone cage production infrastructure, to ensure that they're well placed for meeting those future market demands.
Brian: Yeah, because as you mentioned, you know, there's a lot of companies that come out as cage free and proud like, McDonald's, subway, grill’d, three beans are all now cage free. And as you mentioned, Coles and Woolies and Aldi have all committed to switching to cage free by 2025 or earlier. Surely the industry can see that the writing's on the wall and they have to adapt. What's holding them back?
Jed: Yeah, absolutely. Those egg companies that are investing now in the non cage systems are putting themselves in a good position to benefit from these market developments and changes in the future. And we see those companies that are still clinging on to their battery cages are going to realize that that cage infrastructure is going to become a stranded asset very, very quickly by mid decade. So I guess one of the obstacles in one of the reasons that the egg industry is reluctant to agree to a, you know, a more wide scale legislative transition away from battery cages is that there are still some markets out there for cage eggs. So when we're looking at any market where the consumer doesn't have the ability to make a clear distinction between a cage egg and non cage egg we see the cage eggs sneaking into those markets. So I'm talking there about your food service sector, so in cafes and restaurants, but also in processed food products. So things like your egg mayonnaise, your pastor, your, your cake mixes, etc. Where the consumer doesn't have an easy ability to make that distinction. We've seen the eggs going into those sectors. So that again is just another reason for why we do need to have a legislative transition away from cage eggs. Because many consumers who are very conscious about purchasing non caged eggs at the supermarket level, may be unwittingly consuming cage eggs at their local cafe or when they're buying processed food products. And they may be doing that completely unaware that they're actually supporting a cruel system of production. So again, that is another argument for why we do need a legislative transition so that we have this minimum regulatory benchmark to ensure that all hens produced in Australia have a good life and have the ability to act like a normal hen.
Brian: And on that legislative change. The review on national poultry standards has been going on for years. Where are we up to with it and why is it lagging so badly?
Jed: Yeah, we've been involved in this process, Brian now for five years. We started in 2015. And it's still ongoing, we still don't have a decision on what the future standards for animal welfare in Australia's poultry industries are going to be. But I guess one of the major stumbling blocks there is, is the question about what do we do with battery cages and our state and territory, governments have had a very difficult time trying to reach an agreed position on this issue. And we've got, of course, a lot of disagreement with stakeholders. So of course, all animal welfare groups and indeed the vast majority of the Australian community would like to see a legislative phase out of the cage system of production. But unfortunately, the egg industry has steadfastly opposed that outcome. So we've got stakeholders at loggerheads, unfortunately. And this is despite the fact that we've seen these transitions happen very successfully in other nations around the world indeed, 75% of OECD nations have already made this trade It should happen or in the process of doing so. And as I said earlier, it's involved increased revenue to the sector and increased jobs in that sector as well. So we can see that this can be done successfully. And it's just a matter of state and territory and federal government coming together to make the final decision. So where we're at with the process at the moment, state and territory, governments have agreed to appoint an independent panel to oversee the finalization of the standards by the end of this year. And then those draft standards will be submitted to a meeting of state and territory and federal agriculture ministers at what is called the agricultural ministers forum. And that's going to take place late this year, and we're expecting a decision to be made at that stage and we're certainly hoping that they're going to act on the community views there were 167,000 submissions made to the public consultation process. 99% of those submissions are calling for a phase out of cages. And also we're hoping they'll be acting on the scientific evidence that shows that battery cages cause a lot of suffering to hens as Sarah has already outlined, and that we have successful alternative systems of production that will benefit not only the Australian egg industry, but also consumers and of course, the hens themselves.
Brian: So what can consumers do about this now then, because it seems like change won't happen overnight. But the sooner we get it underway the sooner we can start delivering on their demands. Can they do anything more at the moment to make sure that this does get priority?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely, Brian. So obviously, one of the main things that consumers can do and that they have control over is choosing cage free eggs when they go to the supermarket, but it can kind of it can extend beyond that. It's when you're eating out at a cafe or when you're purchasing your pre mixed cake stuff. It’s actually looking for those products or restaurants or cafes that only sell cage free and not supporting companies that may not yet be, or have cage free commitments, or be using caged eggs. And in that sense, they're able to kind of increase, continue to increase the demand for free range eggs and barn eggs and hopefully then the industry will follow suit and follow where the demand is.
Jed: And the other thing that people can do, Brian is that they can they can write to their, local state Members of Parliament, they can also write to their state agriculture ministers because they will be making a decision at the end of this year as to whether or not Australia will continue to permit battery cages or whether Australia will start a legislative transition away from battery cages at the end of this year. So it's really important to let your political representatives know what your views are on this issue.
Brian: And it's a timely reminder when the world has faced this terrible pandemic that is, stemmed from the mistreatment of animals, that we really have to improve our treatment of animals, not only for their welfare, but also for our health and safety as well.
Sarah: Absolutely. And I think that's all about just continuing to improve public awareness and education about these animal welfare issues. And things that people can do in their own home and in their own life that can actually contribute to improving animal welfare and health, which, as we can see, in turn actually does make sure we stay healthy as well.
Brian: Because when we pick up the eggs in the supermarket, we have this image in our minds of the hens laying comfortably and so on. But as you say, there's other areas where we may be unwittingly contributing to this battery cage system, and we really need to think more about where our food comes from.
Jed: Yeah, absolutely. Brian, I completely agree there. And I just reiterate again, I mean that the sociological evidence is showing that the people, and certainly in Australia, their expectations around animal welfare are increasing year on year. And systems like the battery cage, extreme confinement conditions are simply not in accordance with modern day Australian values anymore. So the battery cage system just has no place in 21st century Australia. And as soon as we start that transition away from that system, the better and we'll see our standards finally starting to align with Australian community expectations.
Brian: I think that's a great point to end on, Jed. I hope we do see some leadership soon on this issue so that we can move away from these barren battery cages as soon as possible because it's inconceivable to me that the law still allows for animals to be treated like this today kept in tiny cages for their entire working lives. It's not, we're outraged by images of animals in cages in other countries, but we don't seem to really see this for what it is here. So, look, thank you both, and all the team at RSPCA Australia for pushing for these much needed changes in this area.
Jed & Sarah: Thanks so much.
Brian: We've been talking today with Dr. Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy officer at RSPCA Australia, and Dr. Sarah Babington, Scientific Officer for farm animals at RSPCA Australia. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on layer hens in Australia, visit the RSPCA knowledge base @ kb.aspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA website rspca.org.au or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.