Life on the land in Australia


The hidden cost of saving money with meat consumption: meat on  the cheap equals more cruelty

pigs in cage image www.ozrural.com.au

Consumers are eating less red meat and more chicken and pork. Few realise the increase in suffering this has caused.

A breeding sow lives for about three years. For much of that time, she may be severely confined in either a stall or a “farrowing crate” or both. Chickens raised for slaughter are bred to grow three times faster than normal. Many die from heart attacks. Some starve to death because their infant legs can’t carry their adult bodies to feed. Sows spend much of their lives pregnant, giving birth in tight steel cages with concrete floors.

Of the animals we eat, which have the worst lives? It’s hard to tell; we’re not them. But what we do know is that cattle and sheep – red-meat contributors to human diets – in the main graze freely in open paddocks, sun on their backs. And here’s another certainty – we are increasingly shunning their meat. A consequence of this is more suffering to more animals. What type of suffering and how animals experience it is open to endless debate. Consumption patterns aren’t.

Chicken and pork trebled and doubled their market shares over the past 50 years at the expense of beef, lamb and mutton.

A study published last year by researchers at Griffith Business School, Griffith University, showed that by 2011 mutton consumption had been “almost wiped out”. Chicken and pork had trebled and doubled their market shares over the past 50 years at the expense of beef, lamb and mutton, whose prices had risen quicker than white-meat counterparts. Australians these days consume about 111 kilograms of meat a year, including 33kg of beef, 9kg of lamb, 25kg of pork and 43kg of chicken. This is nearly three times the international average. While lamb and beef have become luxury foods, chicken and pork are cheap and plentiful.

When we eat bigger beasts, fewer animals get hurt. But what happens when chicken and pork dominate our diets? Animals Australia’s communications director Lisa Chalk says that due to the scale of the industry, “the situation for chickens raised for meat is among the most dire”. Of the more than 500 million chickens raised annually in Australia for food, she says, the industry itself factors in a 4 per cent loss before slaughter. “That’s over 20 million birds a year who die because of their fast growth rate and living conditions,” Ms Chalk says. Chickens have been selectively bred to grow at three times their natural rate.

They’re baby birds in adult bodies. Walking and standing are difficult as their bodies grow and lameness common. Their hearts and lungs are strained and often fail, and some starve because they simply can’t make it to food and water. Those that survive spend their five-week-long lives packed into a dimly lit shed, 20 birds to a square metre. Droppings accumulate beneath them, sometimes burning their feet and breasts. Aware of consumers’ concerns over the plight of factory-farmed chickens, a few leading producers claimed their chickens were “free to roam in large barns”.

The claims were tested by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Late last year, Baida Poultry and Bartter Enterprises, which supply Steggles chicken products, were each fined $400,000 in the Federal Court for “false, misleading and deceptive conduct”. Industry body the Australian Chicken Meat Federation was fined $20,000.  The cruelty caused to breeding sows might be less dramatic. But it lasts longer. “When you consider that a breeding sow lives for around three years and for much of that time she is severely confined in either a stall or a ‘farrowing crate’ or both … that’s a lifetime of suffering,” Ms Chalk says. More than 90 per cent of Australian pig meat is factory-farmed. Yet research shows that pigs are intelligent and have a sense of self.

Winston Churchill thought that pigs treated humans as equals. The compliment between animal species is far from repaid. Sows can legally be confined in a sow stall throughout their entire pregnancy but this will be restricted to six weeks from 2017. The industry has gone further and put in place a voluntary restriction of 10 days per pregnancy from 2017. Ms Chalk calls the stalls “battery cages for pigs”. Sows suffer depression in them and become dull to life, she says. They’re isolated, and before giving birth they are moved to an even more confined “farrowing crate”.

It’s designed to separate piglets from their mother, allowing them only to suckle. “Imagine four weeks in this crate,” Ms Chalk says. “You can step forwards and backwards, but you can’t lie down without touching the sides.” Only concrete is beneath – neither dirt nor straw. (In nature, a female pig creates a nest of twigs and straw to give birth.) Once the piglets are weaned, the sow’s cycle begins again with a fresh impregnation. Animals Australia says it has been talking with the pig industry for more than 20 years to get sow stalls and farrowing crates abolished. “While there has been some movement on stalls as a result of public campaigning, the unrestricted use of farrowing crates continues with regulatory or industry-led change hard fought and very slow,” Ms Chalk says.

Conditions in which pigs are raised for meat are scarcely ideal. Many are crowded into sheds and rarely see daylight, she says, then slaughtered at four to five months. Free-ranging pigs live in the outdoors or their “bred free-range” counterparts are raised in “eco-shelters” – big open-sided shelters with straw, a preferable alternative to conventional factory farming but still not ideal. Ms Chalk says the welfare of ducks in factory farms is “terrible”, also confined to a life indoors and on dry land. It is a duck’s most natural urge to swim but they obviously can’t do it without water. “What underpins the inherent cruelty in factory farming is that animals cannot express their natural behaviours and because of this they have no quality of life whatsoever.” Many animals bred to be eaten undergo surgical procedures without pain relief … these would be cruelty offences if committed on puppies.

Animals Australia fights not just for better living conditions. Many animals bred to be eaten undergo surgical procedures without pain relief. Piglets may have teeth clipped, tails docked and be castrated. Sheep have tails docked and are “mulesed” – large chunks of wool-bearing skin are removed from their buttocks to prevent fly-strike. Cattle are branded, castrated and dehorned. Ms Chalk points out that these would be cruelty offences if committed on puppies. In March, Andrew Spencer, chief executive of Australian Pork Limited, the industry body, told a Canberra conference that Australia’s pork producers were voluntarily phasing out sow stalls. A new survey would show that more than two-thirds of Australian sows would be stall-free. (The APL’s definition of “stall-free” has sows spending up to five days in a “mating” stall and up to a week before they give birth in a farrowing crate. It amounted to about 10 per cent of pregnancy confined.) Mr Spencer said that the Australian pork farmers’ initiative was “world-leading”.

Outside the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, European sows spent up to 30 per cent of their pregnancies confined. In North America, sow stalls were typically used for entire pregnancies. The chicken-meat industry also appears to have heard at least some of the message about humane treatment. Since being fined, the Australian Chicken Meat Federation has removed the words “free to roam” from its website, its executive director, Dr Andreas Dubs, said. As for chicken farming creating the most “dire” conditions for animals, he said the claim was made “with no basis (and) we make honest statements and get dragged through the courts…” He denied that growing chickens in barns was cruel. In the 1980s, the industry had a problem with weak-legged chickens – selective breeding had gone too far. But the problem is being resolved. He said a 4 per cent mortality rate among barn-chicken populations should be compared with a 50 per cent rate “in the wild”.

Moreover, the best farmers had reduced the rate to 1-2 per cent. Dr Dubs acknowledged a growing trend towards free-range chicken farming. Pushed by consumer demand, free-range chicken sales had grown from 4 to 15 per cent of the market in about four years. The goals of Animal Australia and the federation, he said, were similar, in that healthier and stress-free birds produced better results for growers. Farmers “lived for their birds” and it was in their interests to see that their conditions were good.

There was “nothing worse than having a shedful of birds that didn’t grow”. Ms Chalk says that “the very fact that the deaths of millions of birds in their first few weeks of life are factored into the costs of doing business each year only demonstrates that profit – not animal welfare – drives the industry”. The reality of factory farming, she adds, is that “cheaper equals crueller”.

This has been an animal welfare promotion

Henry Sapiecha

June 8th, 2014
Topic: ANIMALS & STOCK Tags: , , , , ,

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