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Lives of farmed chickens set to improve under new welfare standards

New standards provide for more space for chickens in their barns as they grow bigger. (ABC Rural: Eden Hynninen)

The way chickens are farmed in Australia is set to improve after the Agriculture Department released new standards of practice for the poultry industry.

So what does this mean for the day to day life of a chook?

Professor Andrew Fisher is a production animal veterinarian with research and policy development expertise in animal welfare stretching over 25 years and is the director of the Animal Welfare Science Centre.

He was on the the Independent Poultry Welfare Panel that wrote the new standards.

"I think it is fair to say that the community's expectations on the welfare, rearing and raising conditions for poultry have moved over time and we see that in consumer buying preference for things like eggs," Professor Fisher said.

"Currently around 49 per cent of laying hens are free-range, 19 per cent are in a barn and only about 32 per cent are currently in conventional cages."

Layer chickens will need access to nest areas, perches or platforms and a scratch area under the new standards. (Supplied: Animal Liberation)

Conventional – battery – cages are generally about 50 centimetres square in size and will be phased out in Australia by 2036 under the new standards.

From this year, all new chicken cages must be installed with nest areas and layer hens must also have access to perches or platforms and a scratch area to allow them to behave more naturally.

Major supermarket retailers Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have all pledged to phase out or ban battery cages from their supply chains by 2025.

Environmental enrichment

The panel has also recommended updating poultry welfare standards for meat chickens, which grow rapidly and are typically slaughtered within six weeks from hatching.

Farmers would be required to provide environmental enrichment for meat chickens and there would be minimum light intensity standards and required periods of darkness as well as ventilation and temperature parameters for all species.

The new standards aim to allow for chickens to behave more naturally. (Supplied: Sunny Queen)

"Meat chickens are typically in barns and are free to move around, but as the chickens grow and get bigger their space allowance decreases," Professor Fisher said.

"These standards put in place have more space allowances, which aims to make sure when the chickens get bigger they have space to move within the barns.

"Environmental enrichment aims to ensure the birds have things to hop upon, peck at and interact with."

Chickens must now be provided a minimum total of at least six hours of darkness within a 24-hour period, with at least one uninterrupted period of darkness of at least four hours.

"I think it's important to have some reflection of natural conditions, including day/night cycles," Professor Fisher said.

"Birds are often kept in steady low-light conditions, because it both allows for calm behaviour but also facilitates feeding by the birds.

"The draft standards allow for this, but also ensure that the birds have some reflection of a normal day/night cycle."

Chickens are often reared in low light to encourage feeding. (Supplied: Australian Chicken Meat Federation)

High welfare costs

Professor Fisher said it was likely most consumers were unaware of how their food was farmed.

"As a society and consumers we aim for cheap food and one of the consequences is that, economically, there is a scale of production to deliver that, which results in what some people may view as industrial," he said.

"I don't think that should preclude good welfare for the birds and already there are some niche production systems like slower-growing meat chickens, or ones that have greater access to free range.

"Industries are aiming to move to greater transparency around food production.

"Some animal production systems have a webcam that show the animals on the farm — that may be something that increases over time."

Consumers can expect to pay more for food produced under higher animal welfare standards. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Australian Chicken Meat Federation executive director Vivien Kite says much of what is proposed in the new standards is already being implemented voluntarily by the vast majority of chicken producers.

"In this respect the chicken meat industry has led the way in terms of the implementation of enhanced animal welfare practices," she said.

Victorian Farmers Federation egg group president Brian Ahmed said the phase-out of caged egg farming will have a huge impact on food security, given the scale of egg use.

"We believe that the current three-egg enterprise system, which includes caged, barn and free-range, needs to be maintained," he said.

Meat chickens are typically slaughtered within six weeks of hatching. (Supplied: Australian Chicken Meat Federation)

Federal support

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the standards balanced contemporary animal welfare science with feedback from an extensive engagement process that was part of the independent review.

"These standards cover a range of welfare requirements for poultry, including chickens, ducks, pigeons and emus," he said.

"States and territory governments must now look at the standards with all agriculture ministers to consider the next steps by early 2023.

"It is my hope that all states and territories will work together to ensure nationally consistent regulations for poultry."

About 49 per cent of laying hens are free range, 19 per cent are in a barn and about 32 per cent are in battery cages. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

Earlier this year the Australian government granted the National Farmers' Federation $550,000 to help the poultry meat industry investigate a potential code of conduct to increase price transparency and competition.

Former agriculture minister David Littleproud said a code could improve pricing transparency across the sector and help address bargaining power imbalances between growers and a small number of processors.

"The Australian poultry meat industry is highly concentrated, with only six processors controlling more than 95 per cent of the market," he said.

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