Is it Ethical to Eat Ducks?

While you may not eat ducks, you may be purchasing products like jackets, pillows, and blankets, that are filled with down, which comes from the same animals who are being killed for their flesh. This article, however, will be focusing on the duck meat industry, how it operates, the environmental impacts, and health impacts. 

About Ducks

Everyone loves seeing cute little yellow ducklings running around, but we don’t often think about their consciousness or sentience. Understanding how ducks think and their abilities shows how cruel the meat industry is, as it denies them their natural behaviours and treats them as lifeless objects.

Ducks are maternal

Adult ducks care for their young in a few ways. Ducklings are unable to thermoregulate and require a parent to warm them with their wings and body. They protect them from rain, hail, and snow, sunlight, wind, and from predators. Ducklings also rely on their mothers to teach them what they can eat, where their home is, and how to survive [1]. Ducklings stay with their mums for 40-60 days, before they fly off to make their own brood [2].

On farms, ducklings are warmed by unnatural heating and have no mother to care for them and teach them. In 2018, over 8,000 ducklings died at Australia’s largest duck farms, Pepe’s Ducks, due to the “ventilation” system failing. The babies either froze to death or overheated, either way suffering terribly until dying. Despite pushes from Animal Liberation for an investigation, the case was pushed aside by the authorities, as they claimed RSPCA investigated the issue and there was no foul play [3 PDF].

Ducks have abstract thoughts

Ducklings are smarter than we give them credit for. Research has shown that they have abstract thought, something that was only thought possible with primates and other highly intelligent animals! They have the ability to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement or training [4].

On farms, ducks are given no enrichment, leaving them bored, frustrated, and as a result, they can become aggressive toward one another. 

Ducks have a language

While most people are aware that ducks quack, they may not know that they whistle, coo, grunt, and yodel, which vary from soft to very loud calls. These verbal communications may be to call for their mate, find or signal their babies to come or warn them of predators or threats. They also communicate with touch and visuals, such as pumping their heads up and down [5]

The Industry

Around the world, approximately 11 million ducks are killed every single day. That is over 4 billion a year [6]. Australia’s duck meat industry is unfortunately growing, sending around 8-million to slaughter, every year [7]. Commercial operations vary, with farms having between 6,000 and 50,000 ducks at one time [8]

duck farming

Standards and Welfare

The following information is regarding ducks farmed in Australia, however, is relevant to duck farming overseas. In Australia, there are no mandatory skills required to operate a duck farm [8], and ducks are raised in similar conditions to broiler chickens. 

Confined Living

Ducks are kept inside sheds, which are either open-sided for some natural ventilation or fully enclosed [8]. After hatching inside an incubator, they are placed inside the shed where they will spend the next 6 to 7 weeks [9]. The sheds hold up to 18,000 birds, allowing just one square metre of space per 5 ducks. They will never get to go outside [8]

ducklings on duck farm
Ducklings on an Australian duck farm.

Bill Trimming

The stress of confinement, boredom, and overcrowding can lead to cannibalism in ducks. The unnatural living situation can cause them to bully and peck at one another. As a result, farmers can remove the rim of the front of the upper bill using a commercial beak-trimming machine. It has a heated cauterising blade that trims the beak [10, 11]. Beak trimming is incredibly painful for the ducks, as their beaks are as sensitive as our fingertips and palms, full of nerve endings [12].

bill trimming on ducks
Example of a trimmed bill.

Farmed without water

All ducks in Australia are farmed without access to open water, despite it being necessary for their health and wellbeing. They are only given water from nipple drinkers. Ducks use water to clean their eyes, nostrils, and feathers and spend most of their time floating on the surface [13]. The lack of water means that they are forced to carry their body weight for the full 6 to 7 weeks. This places stress on their fragile legs and can cause disorders such as splayed legs, fractured or broken bones, and foot sores. 

A dead duckling on an Australian farm.

In 2012-2013, Animal Liberation exposed Pepe’s Ducks to consumers for their false and misleading advertising [14]. After receiving proof of the ducks being farmed inside sheds with no water, and an investigation by the ACCC, Pepe’s Ducks was fined $400,000 for false, misleading, and deceptive conduct [15]. Shortly after, Animal Liberation had the ACCC investigate Luv-A-Duck for their false claims, and they were fined $360,000 for misleading advertising [16].

Animal Liberation’s 2012 Exposé:

Flooring

The sheds either have wire or mesh flooring that allows waste to fall below the ducks, or litter to absorb the waste. Both have major welfare issues. The wire and mesh flooring can cause abrasions, bruises, and tears to their sensitive feet, and also has the risk of wings becoming caught in the grating, leaving them to starve to death [17]

duck farming
The barren sheds.

If litter is used, it is not changed during the ducks 42-49 days of life. Duck faeces is 90% water [18]. The wet litter can cause footpad lesions or hyperkeratosis, whilst injured ducks, or ducks without the strength to stand, may suffer from painful breast blisters caused by the ammonia from the ongoing build-up of waste matter. Research shows that access to open water reduces the incidence of these problems. 

duck farming
Duck with ammonia burns and bleeding, unable to stand up.

Genetic Altering

Ducks have been selectively bred to grow at rapid rates [19]. One major issue with this is that a ducks skeletal development does not coincide with the earlier muscle development, and as a result, their juvenile skeletal system cannot support their overweight bodies. This, coupled with the inability to float, adds extra pressure on the already weak leg and thigh joints and increases the risk of fractures and splayed legs.

Animal Liberation’s 2018 exposé:

Feed

Ducks are fed an unnatural diet to help them reach their slaughter weight in a shorter time frame. Their feed is a mix of crushed grain (wheat and sorghum), bran, pollard, meat meal, soybean meal and other protein meals [20]. The meat meal is made from rendered animal products that are not for human consumption, such as blood, bones, hoofs, feathers, and animals who died before slaughter. Naturally, they would feed on plants and insects, or fish and crustaceans [21] – most definitely not cow’s, chickens, pigs, sheep, or other ducks.

duck farming

Breeder Flock

Like with chickens, duck eggs are imported from overseas, once hatched and quarantines they go to breeder farms. The majority come from the Grimaud Duck, from France, and the Cherry Valley Duck from the UK [22 DOC]. The fertile eggs then go to a hatchery and become the ‘parent’ flock of the ducks killed for human consumption [8]. The parent flock is placed in sheds at 2 weeks of age for the next 26 weeks. After they have reached sexual maturity, they are moved into the breeding sheds, where they will lay for a maximum of 16 months. At just 18 to 23 months old, they are slaughtered and replaced [23 PDF].

Slaughter 

Ducks are slaughtered at just 6 to 7 weeks old when they have reached a weight of ~2.9kg. This is a drastically shorter life span of their potential 12 years. Workers can grab the ducks by the top of their neck, both wings in one hand, holding them under their arm, or by one wing and leg from the same side [11]. They may also be caught by a catching hook placed around their necks or with nets [11]. They are then shoved into crates for transport. The ducks experience broken bones and wings due to rough handling.

The travel is distressing for the ducks, as they have only ever seen inside the shed. Once they arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are hung upside-down by their fragile legs, which can cause dislocation. They are dragged through an electrified bath before having their throats slit. The ducks panic and often lift their heads above the bath and blade, and are left to have their throats slit by a worker.

The Environment

Like all other animal farming practices, the factory farming of ducks is having negative impacts on the environment. 

Land and resources

As like with all animal farming, the natural land must be cleared for the sheds and their food. Clearing the land destroys natural habitats for animals and destroys the soil structure. Ducks require approximately 2.15kg of food to produce just 1kg of duck meat [24], or around 8kg for their life [25]. It is estimated that 4,325 litres of water is used to produce just 1 kilogram of duck meat [26]. While these amounts are less than those for beef, pigs, and sheep, ending our consumption of these animals will still save natural land, water, and feed. 

Drone of an Australian duck farm.

Waste and Pollution

Animal agriculture is responsible for creating millions of tonnes of waste every year. This waste is used to grow crops, however, can have devastating impacts on the environment [9]. Duck waste contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and heavy metals, like zinc, copper, chromium [27]. When used on crops, the nutrients enter the air, water, and ground. 

Due to the high amount of waste, duck farms are a source of air pollution and odour, which attracts flies, rodents, and other unwanted animals. Ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and volatile organic compounds pollute air quality [28]. Just 1 kilogram of meat produces 5.4 kilograms of CO2 [27].

Our Health 

Your Health

While duck flesh does contain protein, so does a range of plant produce, which also have added nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. A study, albeit, small, found that both red and white meat increase LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol), by 6-7%, with both high and low saturated fat intake. This spike in cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease by several percent [29].

Despite being sold as a “healthy” meat choice, ducks on farms have a high risk of illness, due to the poor husbandry, inability to clean themselves, and the prevalence of faeces. Many suffer from Anatipestifer Disease, which is primarily thought to occur through trauma to the delicate feet. It causes diarrhoea, lethargy, respiratory, and nervous system issues. Others suffer from dyspnoea (trouble breathing), ocular and nasal discharge, coughing, sneezing, tremors of the head and neck, weakness and incoordination [30 PDF]. If they die before they reach the slaughterhouse, they enter the food system for farmed animals. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry allow for same species feeding (forced cannibalism) – meaning, ducks are being fed ducks, along with other rendered animals and their body parts (chickens, hoofs, hide, fish, and wool) [31].

duck farming disease
Duck with neurological disease.

Public Health

With the domestication of animals, came a range of diseases, that most likely wouldn’t have impacted humans – think SARS, Ebola, mad cow, bird flu, whooping cough, typhoid fever, and influenza [32]. Influenza started as an intestinal bug in ducks. It sits in their intestinal lining and as they secrete enters the water and is consumed by another duck, continuing the cycle. When ducks were mixed with land-based avian species – chickens – it infected them, and then mutated to find a new way to spread, eventually mutating to infect humans [33]. Keeping the ducks in unnatural, cramped conditions, is just allowing for viruses to mutate. The reason why ducks are farmed in sheds is to reduce the risk of contracting diseases from wild birds.

Duck farms can suffer from outbreaks of diseases such as salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Pasteurella multocidia but these are quickly brought under control. The most serious disease for intensively-reared ducks on multi-age farms is Rimerella (Pasteurella) anatipestifer which causes tremors and incoordination [34].

People who work or live near poultry farms are at risk of developing respiratory issues. Workers are exposed to high ammonia levels and dust, which is made up of feed, fecal particles, feather barbules, skin debris, spores, and bacterial garments [35]. They are at risk of chronic bronchitis, asthma, runny noses, and irritated eyes [36 37]. Living near poultry farms is associated with an 11% increased risk of community-acquired pneumonia, possibly resulting from changes in the upper respiratory tract microbiota composition in susceptible individuals [38, 39].

What Next?

For the animals, the planet, and ourselves, we need to work together to change our food system. These sentient beings, deserve to live a life free from human harm. If you’re eating duck meat as a source of protein, check out our blog “Plant-Based Nutrient Sources” for plant-based protein sources! These options have a range of other necessary nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which are vital for bodily functions. If you’re eating duck for the taste, check out these vegan ‘duck’ products and recipes – it’s never been easier to align our morals with our behaviours.


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