The logic of practice

It made front page news in The Independent and nowhere else. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have come to a number of decisions to undo the small gains in animal welfare achieved by New Labour.

Please read that piece and give attention to the suffering of circus animals, badgers, birds, and animals about to be slaughtered (in particular look at Animal Aid’s video of illegal slaughterhouse abuses).

But while The Independent’s concern for animals is necessary and all the more admirable for being so rare, what its anti-coalition blinkers (which I have to admit nearly blinkered me too) prevented it from reporting is that New Labour had been backing away from some of its own initiatives before the election.

I’ll concentrate on beak mutilation. Mutilations of animals are ‘for their own good‘, according to intensive farmers, .

“Feather pecking and cannibalism (Figure 1) affects all birds in all production systems. When laying birds are kept systems that give the opportunity for aggressive birds to contact many other birds, cannibalism and feather pecking can spread rapidly through the flock and result in injuries and mortality. Mortality of up to 25–30% of the flock can occur and cause huge mortality and morbidity problems as well as financial losses to the farmer.”

So it is common practice to cut off part of the birds’ beaks. This is painful. Here is why the government act which regulates beak trimming refers to it as ‘mutilation’.

“The beak contains nociceptors that sense pain and noxious stimuli. [12] Beak trimming excites nociceptors. Following a trim, the nociceptors in the beak stump show abnormal patterns of neural discharge, which has been interpreted as acute pain.[13] Neuromas are found in the healed stumps of birds beak trimmed at 5 weeks of age or older and in birds whose beaks are subjected to severe trimming.[14] Neuromas are defined as tangled masses of swollen regenerating axon sprouts. During healing, neuromas are formed as part of the normal regeneration process. Eventually, the nerve fibers regrow, the excess axon sprouts regress, and the neuromas disappear. If beak trimming is severe because of improper procedure or done in older birds, the neuromas may persist, and the emitted action potentials are abnormal,[15] which suggest that beak trimmed older birds may experience chronic pain. However, neuromas do not persist in the beaks of birds subjected to proper trimming at 10 days of age or earlier.[16] For this reason, when conservative beak trimming (50% or less of the beak) is done correctly in birds 10 days of age or younger, formation of neuromas is prevented and the keratinized tissue regenerates.[17]

Labour was due to ban beak mutilation but faltered after a Farm Animal Welfare Council recommendation that, although a total ban was desirable, ‘commercial’ (euphemism for overcrowded) flocks could suffer cannibalism and feather pecking. As reported in a recent ministerial statement:

“The Farm Animal Welfare Council reviewed the evidence in 2007 and 2009. On both occasions it recommended that, until an alternative means of controlling injurious pecking in laying hens can be developed, the proposed ban on beak trimming should not be introduced, but should be deferred until it can be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that laying hens can be managed without beak trimming, without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that infra-red beak treatment should be the only method used routinely, as the evidence indicated that it does not induce chronic pain.”

This is a stark case of profit taking precedence over ending extreme cruelty. Farming UK reports that breeders are beginning to select for pecking behaviour, in the expectation that in time it can be bred out of chickens. However:

“Rob Newbery, the NFU’s chief poultry adviser, believes it may be a very long time before the industry reaches such a point. “Everyone says that with the breeds we use now and the way the world is today in terms of keeping laying hens that we need beak trimming. It has to be impressed on Defra and FAWC that unless there are major changes – and I can’t see what those major changes would be with commercial poultry keeping – they need to stick with allowing producers to use infrared beak trimming.”

Locked within this logic of existing practice, it would be easy to miss the obvious – that here are social animals, animals with a pecking order, whose dysfunctions are due to overcrowding and the impossibility of escape from the aggressive members of the confined flock. Their life must be hell.

I would say these animals shouldn’t be considered food, their eggs shouldn’t be considered food, and I’m repelled by the eugenics solution.

But as far as the workers in this industry are concerned, the implications of the proposed ban on beak mutilation and my own proposal to stop eating animal are the same: either joblessness or higher food prices, and these things have to be taken seriously because they are the reason that vested interests have been able to oppose the ban.

Written ministerial statements indicate that while there is plenty of research into alternatives to beak mutilation, funded by business interests which are invested in current expectations about food and current approaches to intensive farming, nobody with credibility seems to be joining up animal welfare with research into a new national economy of plant food.

This needs to happen, or animals will never be free.

And while it is sickening to think that if the ban goes ahead in January, some of these birds will trade in their lives for their beaks because of the assessment of commercial farmers that consumers will not pay more if they invest in improving conditions for their flocks, I think that this staggering multitude of agonising mutilations is the first thing that has to stop, and I hope I am in good company.

Read Compassion in World Farming’s report from October 2009 on ‘Controlling Feather Pecking and Cannibalism in Laying Hens Without Beak-Trimming‘.

Update: read Barkingside 21’s round-up of recent developments with animal farming and animal welfare.

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