There are basically three ways of getting down:
- Live plucking.
- Harvesting Eider from the nest.
- By-product of the food industry.
There seems to be a lot written about each of these methods but very little scientific or academic study with which to draw conclusions. We couldn't ask the plethora of down and feather association their thoughts as there would be a distinct conflict of interests. So who do you actually turn to for advice?
After quite a number of emails and phone calls to various organizations we eventually got through to Dr Michael Appleby who is Welfare Policy Adviser for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. He also sits on their poultry committee. So if there was anyone that could give us rational voice on the subject then Dr Appleby was going to be our man.
In our conversations with him, it was interesting that this matter hadn't really popped up on their radar before, which may seem disappointing but then if there are more important matters/wider spread problems then quite rightly they should be sorting out those issues out first.
In his last email I think he summed up the society's views
"I believe you are right to address the ethical question of live plucking. WSPA is generally opposed to the removal of material from live animals. However, from what I have been able to discover about the process, it does not seem as bad for welfare as some other animal production practices. So I do not think we are in a position to state strongly that you ought, ethically, to move away from use of down to artificial substitutes. This might, though, be altered if information about your actual supply farms turns out to be very negative."
Edit 20/02/09: Mike has recently contacted us following the recent Swedish television programme that claimed most down from China is plucked from live geese. We will be following this up in a new post. Mikes revised statement reads:
"You are right to address the ethical question of live plucking. WSPA is generally opposed to the removal of material from live animals, and there is evidence that live plucking of geese is very inhumane. However, if you are able to obtain down from birds that have already been killed, I do not think we are in a position to state strongly that you ought, ethically, to move away from use of down to artificial substitutes. This might, though, be altered if your actual supply farms turn out to be plucking live birds."
Thanks Mike.. I guess this is all we needed to know. So lets not drag this out .... live plucking doesn't look like being a good thing, so we should do our very best to ensure that our down doesn't come from this method of production.
Our down currently comes from China (well that's a whole other debate) and so far we have been happy with it's supply. Many of the other leading manufactures source their down from Europe (mostly Hungary and Poland) their reason for this is that these countries have a history of using mature birds which produces more mature down that many people say is considerably better. In the 4 years we have been producing down bags, i think we would probably agree but the considerable extra premium you pay may not be worth it. It would also appear that down sourced from Poland and Hungary is more likely to be live plucked, which has lead to at least one well known company pulling their production from these countries.
I haven't found any clear figures but the general gist from much of what is written about the subject is that much of China goose production is predominated by food production with feathers being a natural by product. The industry seems more fragmented with much of the supply coming from small holdings. This is certainly backed up by my own experience of traveling in China. Almost every poultry farm i have seen would be from what we would view as free range with good outside space and access to water.
Last summer we quizzed our own suppliers about the provenience of the down, we presented them with carefully worded questions as suggested by Dr Mike Appleby. So instead of asking, "do the geese get plucked live" The questions were worded in a way to get a more honest answer, such as, "could you explain how the down is removed from the bird?"
We where satisfied that our down comes from birds that are killed prior to plucking, the usual method seems to be placing the birds head in an open funnel and then having their neck broken. It wasn't clear if the animals are stunned prior to this. Of course it would be nice to see the actual farms the birds get reared on but so far we haven't been able to do that. Perhaps we should do more, however our resources both human and financial are quite limited. We are certainly keen to chase this up, and it would be great if more of the bigger brands took an an interest in this matter.
If there is anyone reading this with some academic or factual data then we would certainly be happy to add to what we have.
What I am keen to do is collate as much information on the subject as possible, and this is where you can help especially if you know about the subject. There is only so much we can do, we are really keen to find out more. I have listed a number of links and hopefully we can add to that.
Goose Production in Chile and South America- M.C. Labatut.
In Search of Lost Fat Content- Gabor Mikosi.
Andrzej Rosinski, “Goose Production in Poland and Eastern Europe,” Department of Poultry Science, Agricultural University of Poznan, 1999.
M.J. Gentle and L.N. Hunter, “Physiological and Behavioural Responses Associated With Feather Removal in Gallus Gallus Var Domesticus,” Research in Veterinary Science 50 (1991): 95-101.
J. Janan et al., “Effect of Feather Plucking in Geese’s Blood Glucose Level,” Hungarian Veterinary Journal Jun. 2001.
Árni Snæbjörnsson, “Eiderduck Farming in Iceland,” Legacy and Vision in Northern Agriculture 4th Conference, Akureyri, Iceland, Aug. 2001.
Note: I am intrigued by this one as ducks and geese don't lend themselves to intensive farming, I need to do some more digging.