What is down?
Down refers to the soft layer of feathers that is closest to a duck or goose’s skin, and is primarily located in the chest and belly regions. Ducks and geese are mainly farmed for the purpose of meat, liver and egg production. However, down and feathers can also be an important source of income and are considered a by-product of these industries (Pingel, 2009). Down is in high demand worldwide by textile markets as it is a good thermal insulator, which makes it highly valuable for the manufacturing of outdoor clothing, pillows, sleeping bags, doonas and quilts (Kozak, Gara and Kawada, 2010).
Where is down mainly produced?
The largest producer of down is China, accounting for 80% of global production, followed by Taiwan, Thailand, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Siberia, France, U.S. and Canada (Pingel, 2009). In 2008, the value of the world trade of down and feathers was USD $1.88 billion, and the global market is expected to reach a value of USD $8.24 billion by 2026 (Transparency Market Research, 2018).
How is down collected?
Down and feathers are removed from the chest, lower belly, flanks and the areas not covered by the wings. They are mainly collected after slaughter (about 98%), however, it has been estimated that about 1 to 2% is still collected by ‘harvesting’ at the time of moulting or by ‘live plucking’ (Kozak, Gara and Kawada, 2010).
‘Harvesting’, also called ‘gathering’, is the removal of loose feathers by hand from a live duck/goose during moulting, which is the period when these birds naturally lose their feathers. Poor handling at this stage is likely to result in increased fear, stress and injury (EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, 2010). It is also important to consider that, while the moulting season is influenced by the age, breed and genetics of the bird, moulting times can vary within a flock. This means that some birds that are not moulting at the time of ‘harvesting’ may be subject to ‘live-plucking’.
‘Live plucking’ occurs outside the moulting season and refers to manually pulling feathers that are still attached to the bird. This procedure is a major welfare concern as live plucking results in bleeding and tearing of skin, causing pain, discomfort and stress to the birds (Gentle and Hunter, 1991). Live plucking is condemned by the China Feather and Down Industrial Association, the European Down and Feather Association, as well as all other down and feather organisations. Still, cases of live plucking have been reported in China, Hungary and Poland. The most recent case of live plucking occurred in 2016 where several farms in China were exposed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA US, 2016). Birds may be live plucked multiple times before slaughter. However, accurate statistics on the extent of live plucking are lacking.
In Australia, the duck industry is relatively small and is mainly focused on meat, producing about 8 million ducks per year (AgriFutures Australia, 2017). Down and feathers are considered a by-product of the industry and live plucking is strictly prohibited. No cases of live plucking have been reported in Australia.
Is live plucking the only welfare concern in down production?
Other welfare concerns of duck and goose production include lack of access to water, lameness, feather pecking, bill trimming, high stocking densities, air quality, respiratory problems and forced feeding (for the production of foie gras which occurs overseas) (EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, 2010). For more information on welfare issues related to duck production, see here.
What is the RSPCA’s view?
Live plucking (including as a result of harvesting/gathering) is not acceptable on welfare grounds and should be prohibited worldwide. It can lead to bruising, skin injuries and bleeding wounds, causing pain, suffering and distress to birds. Consumers can help reduce this unnecessary suffering by making informed purchasing decisions. For example, when considering buying a down-filled puffer jacket or doona, source products with down and feathers collected only after slaughter. Visit http://responsibledown.org to see which companies are certified to the Responsible Down Standard or ask the retailer about their certifications. Where certification schemes are in place, their standards must be publicly available and participating farms must be subject to regular as well as unannounced on-farm audits to ensure animal welfare is not compromised.
AgriFutures Australia (2017) Ducks. Available at: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/ducks.
EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2010) ‘Scientific opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production’, EFSA Journal, 8(11), pp. 1–57. doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1886.
Gentle, M. J. and Hunter, L. N. (1991) ‘Physiological and behavioural responses associated with feather removal in Gallus gallus var domesticus.’, Research in veterinary science, 50(1), pp. 95–101. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2047598 (Accessed: 24 January 2019).
Kozak, J., Gara, I. and Kawada, T. (2010) ‘Production and welfare aspects of goose down and feather harvesting’, World’s Poultry Science Journal. Cambridge University Press on behalf of World’s Poultry Science Association, 66(4), pp. 767–778. doi: 10.1017/S0043933910000723.
PETA US (2016) Exposed: Despite ‘Responsible Down Standards’, Farms Still Live-Plucking Geese. Available at: https://www.peta.org.au/news/exposed-live-plucking-down.
Pingel, H. (2009) ‘Waterfowl production for food security’, in IV World Waterfowl Conference. India, pp. 11–13. Available at: http://www.waterfowl2009.vetcos.com/proceedings – IV WWC – Kerala, India.pdf (Accessed: 23 January 2019).
Transparency Market Research (2018) Global Down and Feather Market. Available at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-down-and-feather-market-to-touch-us-82360-mn-by-2026-transparency-market-research-685653192.html.