Following a request from the European Commission, the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare was asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on the practice of collecting feathers from live geese for down production. An ad hoc expert working group was established in response to the request. The Working Group made use of information provided by stakeholders during the Technical Meeting held on 28th May 2010, technical hearings with experts from an NGO and the feathers industry, in addition to information collected by EFSA through a Public Consultation. The scientific opinion on the practice of collecting feathers from live geese for down production was adopted by the AHAW Panel on 27 October 2010.
Scientific information about the physiology of moulting in geese was assembled and difference between plucking and gathering of feathers specified: Gathering feathers from live geese is defined as removing feathers that are ripe due to the phenomenon of moulting and would refer to using a brushing or combing action to remove feathers or down which are ready to fall out. In the case of plucking, at least parts of the targeted feathers or down have to be pulled out. The conditions under which the practice of collecting feathers from live geese is carried out, starting with an overview of goose husbandry and the effect of domestication and selection of geese for feather production were assembled. The welfare aspects of keeping geese for down and meat production were also considered, including the needs of geese and the assessment of pain and stress during feather collection. Finally scenarios in commercial practice were detailed as part of the assessment of the impact of the practice of collecting feathers on geese welfare.
Conclusions are grouped to respond to the terms of reference of the commission mandate. In relation to the possibility to make a clear distinction between the plucking and gathering of feathers from live geese it is concluded that feathers ready for shedding (ripe) can be gathered from the bird with minimal force and with no bleeding or tissue damage. As feathers become ripe on different parts of the body of the bird at slightly different times, some feathers may be gathered and others plucked on the same individual. In addition, there is a natural variation of moulting between birds within the flock. Hence some birds which are not within the appropriate phase of moult have feathers plucked.
To differentiate plucked from gathered feathers, it is concluded that gathering of ripe feathers would never result in tissue damage, while plucking feathers will result in bleeding follicles, and possibly other skin damage such as tears and bruising. The only way to distinguish gathered from plucked feathers after processing is by examining the shape of the base of the feather shaft, which is more pointed in non-ripe feathers. The ratio of ripe and non-ripe feathers collected from a flock is different when feathers are gathered or plucked.
Removing feathers from live geese can be carried without causing pain, suffering or injury to the birds if feathers are gathered. However, the possibility that feathers are plucked cannot be excluded and it seems that at least minor suffering from pain and injuries is unavoidable under current commercial conditions. The pressure on those collecting feathers to get as many feathers from as many geese as possible, in a short period of a time, results in feathers being plucked. It is concluded, however, that the process of catching, carrying and restraining the bird is the same whether feathers are gathered or plucked. If handled incorrectly, or if the bird struggles, the handling procedure itself involves the risk of pain, suffering and injury. Incorrect handling of geese for feather collection can include carrying the bird by the neck, legs or by one wing, restraining by sitting on the neck of the bird and throwing or dropping the bird. Each of these practices would result in very poor welfare.
Because no quantitative information is currently available about the likelihood of exposure of geese to poor welfare, a ranking approach based on expert opinion was followed to assess the impact of the practice of collecting down and feathers on overall geese welfare. From the ranking it is concluded that the three most relevant outcomes by their magnitude are broken bones, dislocation and suffocation with a low likelihood of occurrence, whether feathers are collected or not. Escape and defence behaviour are of low magnitude, but they are likely to happen in all cases, whether feathers are collected or not. Acute and chronic stress and fear are relevant aspects of poor welfare when combining magnitude and likelihood, whether feathers were collected or not and especially if there are repeated collections. Skin injuries and inappropriate feather removal only become relevant in terms of likelihood and magnitude when feathers are collected compared with when birds are only handled.
Welfare-outcome indicators which could be used to assess the welfare of geese submitted to feather collection include dead birds and broken or dislocated bones during or immediately after the feather collection procedures. These indicate poor catching and handling. Bloody feather quills or calamus, skin injuries and posture changes (e.g. hanging wings) are indicators that the feathers were collected inappropriately. The number of affected birds and the way they are affected gives information about where during the procedure the goose welfare was affected (catching, handling and or feather removal). Geese habituation or sensitisation to the practice (e.g. decreasing or increasing fear reactions to human approach) could also be used as an outcome indicator.
The question related to the difference in quality between feathers collected from live geese and feathers collected in slaughterhouses was regarded as outside EFSA’s remit. However, some information which became available while addressing other issues is listed. The average quality of feathers collected from live geese is better than feathers obtained at the slaughterhouse. Quality is improved when dry plucking of slaughtered birds is used but it is still not as good as live gathering.
The main recommendation is that only ripe feathers should be removed from live geese. A control system should be in place to ensure this is carried out in practice or, alternatively, feathers should be removed by the person using a brushing or combing procedure so that only ripe feathers can be gathered. Grasping of feathers should be avoided. Additionally, as welfare-outcome indicators, the presence of skin tears and blood or tissue on the feathers, and the presence of non-ripe feathers in the collected feather material should be used to distinguish between plucking and gathering. Suffering should be avoided or minimised when catching and handling the geese, and geese should never be carried by the neck, legs or by one wing, be thrown or dropped, or be restrained by sitting on the neck or body of the bird. Operators should be aware of good animal handling methods and the differentiation between ripe and unripe feathers.
Recommendations for future research are focused on the factors indicating the correct stage of moult and the hormonal processes underlying moulting in geese. Further studies should be encouraged to improve the validity, feasibility and reliability of welfare-outcome indicators. The method to evaluate the maturity of the feathers should be validated and further developed.