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Egg farming: Fact Vs Fiction

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Recent commentary by animal welfare activists in the mainstream media has been cause for concern for egg consumers and egg farmers alike. Consumers are driven by many factors when purchasing their weekly meals and while price is a primary driver behind these decisions, they also want to know that they are doing the right thing by respecting the environment, animal welfare and their own neighbourhoods. Egg farmers distress stems from the frequent portrayal of them that implies a lack of care or understanding of the very animals that make up the foundation of their families and local communities well being. 
What the extremists and their supporters fail to recognise, is that debate surrounding the actual egg production systems overlooks the most important indicator of animal welfare across all livestock industries, which is the level of animal husbandry practiced on the farm. The importance of highly skilled farmers, along with robust quality assurance systems in egg farming allows for added consumer choice, and ensures best practice by farmers within all recognised production systems.
Australian consumers are demanding safe, clean, fresh and affordable eggs and that is what Australian egg farmers are passionate about providing. 
The debate about egg production systems is not new. The Australian egg industry is made up of all types of farms – Free Range, Caged and Barn. Each has their advantages and disadvantages in relation to animal health and welfare with no one system providing a perfect environment for the hens’ well-being. As a result, the egg industry invests millions of dollars every year in research with the Australian Government to assist reach even higher standards to those already practiced. This effort will not abate.
Many misconceptions exist in the community and activist groups often perpetuate these in the media and in well-funded public relations campaigns in an effort to mislead consumers and denigrate egg farmers. These include (however are not limited to): 
• Cutting hens beaks off with red hot blades – this does not occur, some beaks are trimmed to reduce the incidence of cannibalism and feather pecking, however this is only the tip of the beak and is done with modern infra-red technology and is most commonly used and required in non-cage systems.
• Imagery of old and rusted battery cages - these deceive the public as they do not reflect modern egg farms that have been upgraded through legislation as recently as 2008. 
• The prevalence of hormones and / or antibiotics - these have not been used in productive laying flocks for decades. Any medication administered to birds is done so only to treat illness when the bird has been quarantined from producing eggs.
• Cages have been banned in the European Union – this is not so. The European Commission has passed laws to upgrade cage production systems across its member countries by 2012.
Approximately seventy five per cent of eggs sold in Australia at the moment are from caged systems. This is essentially because they are the most affordable type of egg. Some consumers prefer to choose free-range or barn-produced eggs and are willing to pay a little more. The Australian Egg Corporation supports and encourages this consumer choice because at the end of the day the final decision should be the consumers’ to make. The Australian egg industry will vigorously defend this right.
As an industry, we take animal welfare seriously. Egg farmers have invested approximately $400 million in recent years in improving all our hen-housing systems for the sole purpose of enhancing the welfare of our birds. As egg farmers from around the country we care about producing the highest quality and safest product to supply to Australian families and we are concerned about our ability to feeding our growing population in an environmentally responsible manner.
We are maintaining that investment in the form of new and improved infrastructure to guarantee the ongoing development of welfare practices within the Australian egg industry. We will also continue to encourage retailers to provide choice because that is what consumers want. Clear nutritional information and clear labelling between the different types of eggs will allow consumers to make an even more informed decision.
The humble egg is one of nature’s great nutritional products. Every vitamin except C, a great source of protein, all the major minerals, Omega-3 - all encased in this simple, easy product. Enough nutrition, in fact, to sustain life!
That is why eggs receive the tick of approval from the Heart Foundation. That is why egg consumption is growing and that the best advice from health nutritionists is that we should all be consuming six eggs a week as part of a healthy diet.
Whatever the factor is that determines the consumers’ egg purchase, one thing remains clear; for a healthy diet they should choose an egg – six times a week!
James Kellaway is the Managing Director of AECL - Australian Egg Corporation Limited - the national industry body representing all Australian egg farmers.