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Kate Balazs examines the welfare of farmed chickens both in and out of cages.

Corporations are widely perceived to talk more about corporate responsibility than practise it. But when it comes to eggs, it seems like every company wants to act responsibly.

Take ALDI. “ALDI has a strong obligation to its customers, suppliers and the wider community to deliver great value products responsibly,” said an ALDI Australia spokesperson on the matter of cage eggs. Joining the ranks of Woolworths—which intends to finish its phase out by 2018—ALDI has committed to selling only cage-free eggs by 2025. But is this the best move for hen welfare?

While animal activists might be rejoicing, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) isn’t pleased. In its eyes, ALDI is depriving consumers of choice and ignoring the AECL’s own research into cage, barn and free-range farming systems, which, it says, shows cage hens’ welfare to be equal to others. “The key to hen welfare is good farm management, rather than individual farming systems,” says the AECL’s managing director, James Kellaway, citing research conducted by Dr Jeff Downing and funded by the AECL. According to Kellaway, Dr Downing’s research reveals “that hen stress levels are similar in the three farming systems.”

Dr Downing’s study measured the stress levels in hens by injecting them with corticosterone (the chicken version of cortisol, a stress-response hormone) and then comparing the levels of corticosterone in the albumen of eggs laid by cage, barn and free-range hens. His results showed that the corticosterone levels found in the albumen of eggs produced by hens across the different farming systems are roughly the same.

Dr Downing concedes that his research—submitted only to the AECL for review—measures only stress and not other “physiological welfare markers—physical condition, health, behaviour and physiology.” In addition, the research has nothing to say about the one standard that consumers might base their egg choice on—happiness. That is because “Happiness can’t easily be measured,” says Dr Downing.

“From the animal ethics’ point of view, [cage farming is] a disaster. It’s no life for them.”—Dr Alex Rosenwax, Bird & Exotics Veterinarian, Sydney

This raises the question: is stress the most important marker of hen welfare? Dr Raf Freire, a senior lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at Charles Sturt University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, thinks not. For Dr Freire, stress is one measure among many.

“What they mean by stress is physiology,” he says. “Welfare isn’t simply stress, and the other thing to remember about stress is that it’s a natural response. It is actually good to have a little bit of stress: it helps with metabolism, it helps with ensuring an animal is showing the right responses, the right behaviours.

“What we think about in animal welfare is that if stress is very high and very prolonged, then that might indicate there may be some welfare problems.”

It’s when behaviour is taken into account that a host of other welfare issues present themselves.

“We know that hens in cages have serious behavioural problems,” says Dr Freire. “Pre-laying behaviour is severely disrupted, they can’t forage, they can’t perch, which results in very weak bones and there is no freedom of movement; they really can’t move their wings. We’ve known this for 20 years now. There are some serious problems and this has been the grounds for why other countries have banned them. There’s no way around those problems, apart from getting the hens out of the cages.”

Dr Freire does agree with the AECL on one thing, though—there is variation within systems—but that hasn’t changed his mind about cages.

“To think that management is somehow going to improve the welfare in cages is quite disingenuous, really. For a hen in a cage, there is not much you can do to improve its life. With free-range systems, it is more variable. You have some farmers who are very dedicated and experienced working on their systems and they have developed systems that are excellent. What you find in those systems is that the welfare is excellent and much, much better than welfare in cages.”

“Anything but true free-range chickens are not happy and it’s important as vets we consider animal welfare, including quality of life.”—Dr Alex Rosenwax, Bird & Exotics Veterinarian, Sydney

For avian veterinary consultant Dr Alex Rosenwax, from the Bird & Exotics Veterinarian in Green Square, Sydney, the issue of welfare needs to take more than physiology and behaviour into account—the overarching ethics need to be considered, too.

“The whole issue is difficult. The reason it’s difficult is that we have two competing issues,” he says. “One is that the general vet and a lot of people think cage eggs are inappropriate but at the same time people want cheap eggs so the supermarkets are conscious of what people want and that not everyone can afford free-range eggs or they’re not interested. It’s really complicated by that matter. If you’re on a tight budget, you still need to eat.”

Dr Rosenwax sees a lot of backyard chickens at his work and as a young vet saw many cage-farmed chickens. The difference is unmistakeable, not just to him but to many other vets as well. “From a welfare side, [cage farming is] a disaster for the animals. For the people who work in the industry it’s difficult for them. From the animal ethics’ point of view, it’s a disaster. It’s no life for them.

“I think most vets, clinical, or otherwise, are conscious of animal ethics and therefore I feel it’s important and one of their responsibilities, especially for the newer generation, because animal ethics and welfare are part of being a vet.”

As the guardians of society’s animals and often the most knowledgeable people in the area, vets can make a difference to animal welfare.

“Anything but true free-range chickens aren’t happy and it’s important as vets we consider animal welfare, including quality of life,” says Dr Rosenwax. “Vets should be educated about the difference between cage-egg production birds and true free-range birds both as consumers and to instruct the consumer when asked.”

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