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What You Might Not Know About the Down in Your Pillow…

Down feathers come from ducks and geese.

Thanks to an investigation by the Swedish television show Kalla Fakta (English translation: Cold Facts), a great deal of attention has been paid in the past few years to the subject of live-plucking down feathers from geese and ducks.

According to the Swedish exposé, live-plucking is the primary means of obtaining down in the three largest down producing countries in the world -- Hungary, Poland and China.

This information has been strongly refuted by the International Down and Feather Laboratory and Institute and several other associations that benefit from the manufacture, sale and export of down products.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

“Down” is the soft layer of feathers closest to a bird’s body and is found primarily in the chest region. Unlike outer layers of feathers, down feathers have no sharp quills. This is why down is highly valued as filler for products like bedding, clothing and furniture.

According to the International Down and Feather Laboratory and Institute (IDFL), China produces 80 percent of the world’s supply of down feathers, of which 90 percent is sourced from ducks and the remainder from geese.

How Down is Gathered

There are three methods for collecting the down feathers from ducks and geese:

1. As a by-product of birds killed for the food industry
2. Through “harvesting” of the down feathers of live birds during molting season
3. Live-plucking of down from live birds

The major controversy is around the latter two – harvesting and live-plucking.

The IDFL is careful to make a distinction between harvesting and live-plucking. However, they do not offer an explanation of the actual process by which down is taken from molting birds. Here is what they do say:

The laws of the European Union (EU) allow for legal “harvesting” of soft down and small feathers during the molting season. The laws require special handling of the birds during the molting season when down and feathers are naturally lost. In China, “harvesting” of soft down and feathers from geese also occurs in a few flocks that often originated from east European countries.

Harvesting clearly involves more than just collecting the down feathers as they fall off. Otherwise, proponents of the practice would be quick to point out there is no handling of the birds.

The logical conclusion is the process requires some pulling and tugging at the loose molting feathers to get them to fall away. How uncomfortable this is for the ducks and geese isn’t known. At a minimum, it’s easy to imagine they don’t enjoy it, and I would imagine it would be painful (akin to having your hair pulled out).

Live-plucking is the practice of removing down feathers from live, un-anaesthetized ducks and geese. The process is manual. Workers position a bird between their knees, on its back, and hold it there while they rapidly pull out the down feathers from the chest area.

Is Live-Plucking Painful?

Research (and common sense) indicates that it surely is.

Several avian species, including ducks and geese, have pain receptors in their skin. The feathers grow out of follicles in the skin, and the follicle walls also contain a large number of sensory receptors.

The papilla, pulp and muscles in the feathers themselves contain nerve endings sensitive to pain as well.

In addition to the pain of the actual plucking and the trauma to birds restrained on their backs during the ordeal, serious injuries including large flesh wounds and stress-induced paralysis are also known to occur.

Waterfowl develop a full coat of down by about eight weeks of age. In countries where live-plucking is practiced, it is common for birds to be live-plucked the first time at 10 weeks, and then every six weeks thereafter until they are slaughtered. Up to five ounces of feathers and down are pulled from a bird during each live-plucking.

How Widespread is the Practice of Live-Plucking?

Live plucking isn’t practiced in the U.S., however, we import down from the three largest producing countries.

The procedure is also illegal in Europe, but sanctions prohibiting live-plucking are not enforced according to the Animal Welfare Institute.

Two separate investigations, one by the Swedish Kalla Fakta television show mentioned earlier and another by Scandinavian furniture manufacturer IKEA, indicate that 50 to 80 percent of all down is live-plucked.

The IDFL headquartered in Utah, the European Down and Feather Association, the China Feather and Down Industrial Association, and other similar organizations strongly refute that statistic.

According to the IDFL:

  • Less than two tenths of one percent of China’s down is harvested or live-plucked
  • In Europe, the practice is most common in Hungary, where less than 10 percent of goose down is harvested or live-plucked.
  • In the rest of Europe, far less than 10 percent of goose down is obtained by harvesting or live-plucking and the practice is even less common for duck down.

The IDFL cites the prohibitive expense of harvesting or live-plucking vs. obtaining down from the food production industry as proof the majority of down is not collected from live birds.

Per the IDFL, in China harvesting or live-plucking is one and a half times more expensive than normal feather production from the food industry. The practice is twice as expensive in European countries.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, it takes the down of about 75 birds to fill one comforter -- a fact that makes it hard to imagine how 50 to 80 percent of the world’s down production comes from the manual harvesting or live-plucking methods.

Logic seems to indicate that the massive amounts of feathers required to fill all the bedding, clothing and other down products sold across the world are primarily obtained from dead birds during the automated processes used by the food industry. However, for many there is an ethical difference between using feathers that are already a by-product of the poultry industry and live plucking birds for this resource.

A Test is Under Development to Determine the Source of Down Filler

The IDFL, with help from other laboratories, is working to develop a test to indicate whether down has been collected from live or dead birds.

If down can be accurately tested for its source, products containing the filler produced by the food industry can go through a certification process and be labeled cruelty-free (which is somewhat of a bittersweet misnomer…the bird’s death may not have been cruelty free).

At the present time, however, there’s no way to know with absolute certainty whether the down in the product you’re using was plucked from live birds or was a by-product.

If you’re concerned about the practices of harvesting and live-plucking, as I am, you might want to consider a synthetic alternative to down. These materials go by names including Polarguard, Primaloft, Thermolite and Thinsulate.

These synthetic materials are typically water resistant, hypoallergenic, easy to care for (machine washable), and are generally less expensive than products containing down feathers.