Understandably, the free range industry and consumers are in turmoil over this proposal. We agree with the Egg Corporation that the current standards for free range egg production need to be changed - but they need to be tightened up to ensure that consumers are not misled. The changes proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation will allow large producers to charge customers a premium for branding their eggs as 'free range' without incurring the additional costs of genuine free range production methods.
The proposed stocking rate equates to 400 DSE per hectare - totally unsustainable.
Information about beak-trimmingBeak trimming or de-beaking of laying hens is still a widespread practice in Australia – even in 'free range' flocks of birds with the currentstandards approved by the Australian Egg Corporation. The majority of so-called free range farms are intensive production systems with flocks of many thousands of hens.
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry),which provides the only widely accepted national definition of the term 'free range' states that every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting birds which have more docile tendencies.
But the reality is that intensive free range farms beak trim their birds as a matter of course because they want to run large numbers and they chose to use high producing hens developed for the cage industry. These hens have been selectively cross bred for only two traits – maximum egg production and minimum feed intake. This often means they are aggressive and cannibalistic.
It is important to select a strain of bird that is less aggressive, and to get breeders to breed birds that are more docile. Research has shown that breeding for low aggression can have a marked effect in only 4 or 5 generations. Dr Mike Gentle, a U.S. researcher in this area, has concluded:
" In the long term, beak trimming should be phased out and undesirable behaviour controlled by environmental means and by increased effort being devoted to the genetic selection of commercial stocks which do not engage in damaging pecking, either in cages or when floor-housed in large flocks. "
Hens must be kept in groups small enough to be able to recognise each other.
•Beak-trimming involves cutting off around a third of a chick’s beak with a red-hot blade or an infra-red beam. Scientific studies show that this is a painful mutilation which results in acute pain and may also lead to prolonged pain.
•Scientific research and practical experience also show that the correct way to prevent feather-pecking is not to beak-trim birds, but to keep them in good conditions – in particular by providing opportunities for them to forage and perch – and to select for birds that are less prone to feather-pecking.
•Australian farmers should learn from the experiences of Switzerland and Sweden, where beak-trimming has been banned for many years and Austria,where beak trimming has been phased out. If farmers in these countries do not find it necessary to beak-trim, Australian farmers must also be able to manage without using this mutilation.
Egg farmers need to make a much greater effort to control aggression without de-beaking. From our experience talking with consumers at Farmers' Markets, they do not believe that 'free range' production should involve the de-beaking of birds. Aggression and cannibalism is a behavioural problem which is easily solved by effective poultry management and selection of birds.
Current plans of the Australian Egg Corporation to allow a huge increase in the stocking density on 'free range' farms will make the problem even worse.