The world of industrial food production depends upon feel-good marketing messages as a defense against real investigation and information about food quality and animal welfare. As we discuss elsewhere, phrases such as “cage-free”, “free-range” and even “pasture-raised” are essentially marketing terms. The industry practice of “beak trimming” — cutting off more or less of a hen’s beak — is a standard — even for national brands labelled “pasture-raised.”
You would never find out about beak trimming by reading the information on an egg carton or even on an egg producer’s website. At Bethesda Farm, we like to say, “the chicken comes first, then the egg” and we believe that it is vital – both for animal welfare and for egg quality and taste – that farms rise above industry practices. At Bethesda Farm, we never trim our beautiful birds’ beaks, or physically alter them in any way.
Why Would Anyone Cut a Bird’s Beak?
As you probably know, there’s a lot that goes down in the food production industry that would never occur to you and us. These industry methods are used by companies focused on efficiency: getting a few more pennies out of each animal. At Bethesda Farm, we would have never known about beak trimming if we had not read about it. It’s simply not natural, not something that someone raising backyard chickens would ever think about doing.
So, why do industrial producers cut the beaks of each and every chicken they own? The answer lies in the living condition of those birds. Like you and me, birds like some breathing room. When industrial producers unnaturally try to raise as many birds in as small space as possible, the natural result is that the birds contend with one another for the too-little space they have — often this involves using their beaks against each other. While this is certainly true for caged birds, it is no less true for “cage-free”, “free-range” and even “pasture-raised” hens who do not receive enough space. Instead of providing them with the space they need to flourish, industrial producers — with an eye on profits — choose to cut off some portion of their birds’ beaks.
An important difference between Bethesda Farm and other “pasture-raised” brands is that our birds live outside on organic pasture, with mobile houses for shelter. We move the houses regularly so that our birds have access to plenty of fresh grass. While other “humane standards” permit beak trimming, the “Mobile Houses on Pasture” standard that Bethesda Farm follows (and is regularly audited for) does not permit beak trimming or any other physical alterations.
Does Cutting a Hen’s Beak Hurt?
We don’t have an answer for you on this one — just anticipating a question you may have about the procedure. We have never seen a bird’s beak trimmed and, from what we have seen, it can sometimes involve a very small portion of a bird’s beak. However, a birds beak isn’t, as it may appear, simply a hard instrument but a sensitive organ:
The beak is a complex, functional organ with an extensive nervous supply including nociceptors that sense pain and noxious stimuli. These would almost certainly be stimulated during beak trimming, indicating strongly that acute pain would be experienced. Behavioral evidence of pain after beak trimming in layer hen chicks has been based on the observed reduction in pecking behavior, reduced activity and social behavior, and increased sleep duration.
Based on this assessment, it seems likely that even a “little beak trimming” can cause pain to each of the hens on the industrial farms where the method is used. We are glad that the hens at Bethesda Farm live with enough room to not have to compete with their fellow-birds.