Egg production systems in Australia and the natural behaviours of hens
Revised 10 April 2013
Package labeling and a lack of proper legislation
It had become clear that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the welfare standards of laying hens in Australia. People are looking for more humane alternatives to caged or barn laid eggs, opting for labels such as ‘free range’ or ‘organic’. Various labeling on egg cartons sold in major supermarkets can be confusing and often misleading, claiming or implying higher welfare standards for laying hens than is actually given. Furthermore, there lacks proper legislation to regulate such practices, making it even harder on the consumer.
Animals Australia provide the following table to provide a no nonsense guide to egg production systems in Australia in relation to the welfare of laying hens (http://www.animalsaustralia.org/features/eggs-demystified.php):
Natural behaviours of hens
Laying hens who are confined to cages do not have space to move, stretch their wings, or engage in most other natural behaviours such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. Such restrictions cause hens to carry out repetitive or destructive behaviours that do not occur in hens who are not caged. These include showing fearful behaviour like feather pulling or pecking other hens (sometimes to the point of death or cannibalism). Caged hens also become prone to skeletal problems due to such intense captivity, and frequently suffer from brittle bones and painful bone breakages. Dust bathing, the act in which an animal grooms itself by rolling or moving around in dust or sand, is not possible for caged hens, which leads to ‘sham dust bathing’. This involves hens performing all elements of normal dust bathing but in the complete absence of any sand or dust. This often leads to injuries from hens getting caught in wire flooring commonly installed in standard battery cages.
Humane Society International Australia estimates that approximately 80% of egg production in Australia comes from laying hens who are kept in battery cage systems for their entire lives.
Understanding common labels
Currently there is no legal definition of the term ‘free range’ in Australia. Therefore standards between free range egg farms can vary considerably. The main difference between free range farms in Australia is the number of birds kept in a certain space. 1 500 birds per hectare is the recommended maximum, but this is not enforceable. This results in larger scale egg producers keeping birds at much higher densities while using the term ‘free range’.
Certified organic eggs derive from laying hens who are kept on farms, which meet the standards of a free range facility. However, the word ‘organic’ alone can be misleading, as it may refer to hens in barns fed organic grains.
Hens in barn laid housing systems are not confined in cages. However due to high stocking densities this system still often restricts laying hens’ ability to move freely and carry out natural behaviours. Stressful overcrowding leads to hens behaving aggressively towards one another, often resulting in severe pecking, which sometimes lead to death or cannibalism.
1. Animals Australia, ‘Eggs, demystified.’, Last updated 28 March 2012, http://www.animalsaustralia.org/features/eggs-demystified.php
3. Humane Society International Australia, http://www.hsi.org.au/?catID=162
4. Merrill RJN, Cooper JJ, Albentosa MJ, Nicol CJ (2006) The preferences of laying hens for perforated Astroturf over conventional wire as a dustbathing substrate in furnished cages. Animal Welfare 15, 173-178
Composed by V. Wangnet (World League for Protection of Animals Inc.),