Debeaking...Mutilation to Increase Profit

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Debeaking...Mutilation to Increase Profits

 July 2008

"The emotion-laden word 'mutilation' is sometimes used in describing husbandry practices such as removing a portion of a hen’s beak. However removal of certain bodily structures, although causing temporary pain to individuals, can be of much benefit to the welfare of the group."

The commercial egg and breeder industries have been heavily criticized for housing chickens in production systems which fail to accommodate the birds’ behavioral needs thus causing cannibalism and feather pecking. The industry is criticized still further for using beak trimming (a form of mutilation) to solve the problem of feather pecking, often called "cannibalism."

Feather pecking is NOT aggression; rather it’s foraging behavior gone wrong. The solution of the poultry industry is to chop off birds' beaks.

The trigeminal ganglia—the site of the first order of sensory neurons that innervate the face and beak—develop when the embryo is two days old.

The integument of the chicken (skin and accessory structures, the beak) contain many sensory receptors of several types allowing perception of touch (both moving stimuli and pressure stimuli), cold, heat, and noxious (painful or unpleasant) stimulation. The beak has concentrations of touch receptors forming specialized beak tip organs which give the bird sensitivity for manipulation and assessment of objects. Beak trimming deprives the bird of normal sensory evaluation of objects when using the beak.

Egg producers remove up to two thirds or more of hens’ beaks with a hot or cold machine blade, without painkillers, to reduce “cannibalistic” pecking and lower the cost of feeding the birds. Debeaked birds have been shown to suffer acute and chronic pain and distress. Their appetites are reduced, and they do not grasp their food efficiently, which causes them to eat less, fling their food less, and “waste” less energy than intact birds, thereby (it is claimed) saving the industry money. Rough handling including noise, yelling and being grabbed by the head, neck, tail or wing, as operators shove the birds’ faces up against, or into, the debeaking machinery, then pull the birds violently away and toss them into containers, causes broken bones, torn and twisted beaks, hidden joint and other injuries.

Debeaking—also referred to as partial beak amputation or beak-trimming—began in the 1930s and 1940s when a “gas torch was used by T.E. Wolfe in San Diego, California to burn off part of the upper beak of the hen. ” Later a neighbor of Wolfe, W.K. Hopper, adapted a “tinner’s soldering iron by giving it a chisel edge, which enabled the operator to apply downward pressure on the upper beak to sear and cauterize the beak.” The Lyon Electric Company in San Diego adopted some of these modifications to develop the first beak-trimming machine. The company “first brought out a heated knife attachment for a homemade beak support and frame. The name for the machine ‘debeaker’ was coined in 1942 and registered in 1943."

Chickens raised for meat are no longer debeaked because “meat-type” chickens are slaughtered at six-weeks of age—still babies—before they are old enough to form a social order. "Because social dominance in either sex is not evident prior to eight to ten weeks of age, it is possible to raise large numbers of broilers in a single pen without fear that the birds will develop social agonistic characteristics."

In contrast, hens used to produce eggs for human consumption—broiler breeder roosters and egg-industry roosters and hens used for breeding—are debeaked one or more times, by contract or company teams, between the ages of one-day and five months of age before egg-laying begins. (Likewise, turkeys, pheasants, quails, and guinea fowl are debeaked; ducks are debilled.) Because a severed young beak can grow back or be fatally injured, “the most popular age for beak-trimming is from five to ten days of age" even though research indicates that day-old beak-trimming causes the least stress.

Lyon Electric Company warns customers that failure to debeak “properly” can cause starveouts: feed wastage, and even the so-called cannibalism debeaking is supposed to prevent. Poultry manuals tell farmers that if an electric beak trimmer isn’t handy, “a sharp jackknife or a pair of scissors” may be temporarily used. Researchers in the 1990s experimented with jackknives, dog nail clippers, and pruning shears—“secateurs. For example, Grigor, Hughes and Gentle “used a pair of secateurs at one, six or 21 days to trim the upper beaks of turkeys. There was bleeding from the upper mandible, which ceased shortly after the operation. Despite the beak regrowth, a reduction of cannibalism was noted,” reported one farmer. In another experiment, some farmers “used secateurs to remove one-third of the upper beak in chickens.” Many debeaking experiments with blades resulted in “very few differences observed between behavior and production of the hot blade and cold blade trimmed chickens.”

The poultry industry used to deceive the public that a chicken’s beak was as insensitive as the tip of a human fingernail. But this assertion can no longer be made because of decades of research. In fact, debeaking was fully explored by the Brambell Committee (a group of veterinarians and other experts appointed by the British Parliament to investigate animal welfare concerns arising from Ruth Harrison’s description of factory farming in her book Animal Machines, published in 1964). Reporting on farmed animal welfare in the U.K in 1965, the Brambell Committee recommended that "beak trimming should be stopped immediately in caged birds and within two years for non-caged birds."

The Committee stated that “Irrespective of whether the operation is performed competently, and in the way that meets with the general approval of the poultry industry,” debeaking is not similar to fingernail clipping: “The upper mandible of the bird consists of a thin layer of horn covering a bony structure of the same profile which extends to within a millimeter or so of the tip of the beak. Between the horn and bone of the beak is a thin layer of highly sensitive soft tissue, resembling the quick of the human nail. The hot knife blade used in debeaking cuts through this complex of horn, bone and sensitive tissue causing severe pain.”

Acute and Chronic Pain

In 1993, Ian Duncan, a poultry researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, explained why “there is now good morphological, neurophysiological, and behavioral evidence that beak trimming leads to both acute and chronic pain.” The morphological evidence is that the tip of the beak is richly innervated and has nociceptors or pain receptors. This means that cutting and heating the beak will lead to acute pain. In addition, it has been shown that as the nerve fibers in the amputated stump of the beak start to regenerate into the damaged tissue, neuromas form. Neuromas are tiny tangled nerve masses that have been implicated in phantom limb pain (a type of chronic pain in human beings). The neurophysiological evidence is that there are abnormal afferent nerve discharges in fibers running from the amputated stump for many weeks after beak trimming—long after the healing process has occurred. This is similar to what happens in human amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain.

The behavioral evidence is that the behavior of beak-trimmed birds is radically altered for many weeks compared to that which occurs immediately before the operation and compared to that shown by sham-operated control birds. In particular, classes of behavior involving the beak, namely feeding, drinking, preening and pecking at the environment, occur much less frequently, and two behavior patterns—standing idle and dozing—occur much more frequently. The only reasonable explanation of these changes is that the birds are suffering from chronic pain.

Based on the demonstrations of neuropathic pain, sickness behavior, and other criteria of suffering and debilitation in beak-trimmed birds, the government advisory Farm Animal Welfare Council in Britain reaffirmed the Brambell Committee’s 1960s findings in its 1991 Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens in Colony Systems stating that debeaking is “a serious welfare insult [injury, attack, or trauma] to the hens” that “should not be necessary in a well-managed system where the hens’ requirements are fully met.” However, debeaking is still done in the European Union, with the exception of Sweden, where the procedure is banned. A 2004 report by Compassion in World Farming Trust on Practical Alternatives to Battery Cages for Laying Hens lists the “banning of beak trimming that causes both acute and chronic pain” as a major legislative objective not yet obtained. Currently, there is no law or pending legislation prohibiting debeaking in North America.

There needs to be.

Poultry producers know that debeaking causes pain. They have their own term—“beak tenderness"—to describe the condition that prompts advice about such things as the need for deep feed troughs to prevent the wounded beak from bumping the bottom of the trough resulting in starve-outs: “Striking the tender beak would certainly be a deterrent to normal feed consumption.” Debeaking machine operators are reminded to do the “very tedious task” of beak trimming carefully. “Too often it is done carelessly.... Be sure not to sear the eyes when trimming." And remember: “An excessively hot blade causes blisters in the mouth. A cold or dull blade may cause the development of a fleshy, bulb-like growth on the end of the mandible. Such growths are very sensitive and will cause below average performance."

Debeaking does not stop “cannibalism” anyway. Diseases of Poultry states that a “different form of cannibalism is now being observed in beak-trimmed birds kept in cages. The area about the eyes is black and blue with subcutaneous hemorrhage, wattles are dark and swollen with extravasated blood, and earlobes are black and necrotic” and "Improperly cauterized birds who bleed after beak trimming may attract other birds “to gently peck at the wound,” encouraging them later to “initiate cannibalism.”

Cannibalism is not normal in chickens. It is a human-created pecking disorder of captive birds—foraging behavior gone wrong.


Karen Davis is the President and Founder of  United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org. Excerpt is from Poisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry http://www.amazon.com/Prisoned-Chickens-Poisoned-Eggs-Industry/dp/1570670323/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217354948&sr=8-1

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