An outbreak of aggressive feather pecking and cannibalism in a flock of laying hens involved in a government-backed trial could derail plans to ban beak trimming in the UK as of 2016.
Twenty flocks are currently involved in the trials, which were set up to inform the UK government about the practicalities of managing laying hens with their beaks intact. The outbreak occurred in a flock of 16,000 hens; mortality reached 20 percent before vets were called in to de-beak the remaining birds. The ban on beak trimming in the UK was originally due to come into force in 2011.
Industry proponents are using the outbreak to call for further delay on the ban. They conveniently ignore the fact that routine mutilations such as beak trimming only become “necessary” under the cramped, miserable conditions that are standard in the industry. The same misguided justification underlies the dangerously profligate use of antibiotics in intensive livestock operations, where routine sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics are deemed “essential” to prevent the inevitable outbreak of disease that would otherwise occur in the overcrowded, unsanitary and stressful conditions. (See FDA Takes Soft Approach Against Deadly Superbugs.)
Standards on farms certified through AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program require poultry farmers to manage their birds in appropriate numbers and to adopt management strategies that eliminate the problems that induce industrial farms to trim beaks. These farms are working proof that these routine mutilations are simply not necessary where farming systems prioritize animal welfare.