Industrialized egg production represents one of the most intensive forms of animal agriculture in the world. It is also a slaughter industry. Few, if any species of farmed animals, endure as much hardship and for as long as egg-laying hens. They are truly among the most exploited.
Photo credit for the banner image: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
The birds used as breeding stock will have their eggs taken away and placed into climate and temperature controlled incubators. After approximately 21 days, the chicks will hatch. Baby chicks are known as precocial which means they are born with their eyes open, are fairly mobile and relatively mature.
Conveyor systems will carry newly hatched chicks into a sexing room. This is the part of the hatchery where workers will quickly determine the gender of each chick. Females will be sent for beak trimming, vaccination and a rearing facility while the male chicks are disposed of. This is because male chicks don’t lay eggs and are of no value to the industry. And since they have not been bred nor genetically altered to be ideal for meat consumption, they can’t be diverted to broiler facilities (“broilers” is an industry term for meat birds). Thus, they are killed soon after hatching.
The male chicks are disposed of in one of several ways: they are shredded alive in a macerator; gassed; ground alive in an auger; or sometimes thrown into plastic containers and suffocated. Sometimes the remains of these chicks are used to make low-grade animal feed and filler. The methods of disposal will vary depending on country and region.
Beak and Toe Trimming
Right after sexing, the female birds will have their beaks trimmed. De-beaking is often performed on those destined for caged, free-range or organic barn systems. However, some of these may opt to ban the procedure depending on country or certification requirements. De-beaking is almost always done without anesthesia. Within the breeding stock, male birds may also have their beaks trimmed and the last joint on the medial and back toes cut off.
De-beaking is often done by using heated guillotines or infra-red laser operated blades utilizing temperatures up to 1500 degrees F. A baby chick's beak is known to have an extensive nerve supply and are a complex, functional organ. Some physiological changes can occur in these cut nerves and damaged tissue that can lead to acute and long-term pain. This in turn can lead to behavioral issues, reduced social activity, lethargy and changes to guarding behavior. It can also result in reduced feed and water intake and thus dehydration and illness due to a weakened immune system.
Due to the stress brought on by intensive confinement and being deprived of natural behaviors, the industry wishes to prevent the inevitable aggressive, predatory behavior and pecking which can lead to widespread injuries amongst the flock.
High stocking densities and intensive confinement are ideal environments for the potential emergence and spread of avian diseases. As a result, the chicks must be vaccinated. There are 6 – 8 different viruses chicks are immunized against. Vaccinations are administered a number of ways, usually through injections, their drinking water or spraying.
Salmonella is always a concern and is controlled in some regions better than others. Anti-coccidial drugs are often given to hens to prevent coccidiosis – a parasitic infection in the gut of birds that can lead to reduced laying productivity and death.
Red mites are also a concern in both caged and non-caged systems and are difficult to control. Thus, barns and sheds often have to be disinfected with sprays. Worm parasites are often prevalent on pasture systems and are treatable with anthelmintics.
A pullet is a young, laying hen before she reaches maturity. Pullets are either transported to a rearing site or kept at a rearing facility located at a hatchery or at their final laying destination. At approximately 16 weeks of age, the pullets are generally well feathered and are able to regulate their own body heat. At this stage they are transferred to a laying facility.
Modern, egg-laying hens lay upwards of 300 eggs per year (average), and begin laying at around 19 weeks. Hens are typically confined with 8-10 other hens in a single battery cage – the most commonly used form of confinement in the industry.
Cages are typically stacked on top of one another in rows and housed in windowless sheds with no access to the outside. Cages are made from metal wire and are approximately 20 inches x 20 inches (50cm x 50cm) in size. They will have a trough for feeding, nipple drinkers and a sloped wire floor so the eggs can roll onto a conveyor. Battery cages have, or are in the process of being eliminated, in some jurisdictions around the world like the EU. Some countries have seen industry commitments to phase out battery cages as early as 2025. However, battery cages remain pervasive and are the go-to system in emerging markets and 3rd world countries. And many of these battery cage systems are simply being replaced by enriched or colony cages.
Gallery above: battery caged systems. Photos taken in Austria and Sweden. Photo credit for gallery: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Battery cages have no perches and no nesting spots. Due to the wire floor there is no litter for the hens to scratch and dust bathe. These cages can be stacked within an A-frame system, often 3 rows high, in sheds that can house up to 125,000 hens. Some larger farms can house over a million hens in total.
Enriched, or furnished cages, are another housing system. They provide a bit more space; have a nest box and some perching space. These cages may also contain a small area of litter and a claw-shortening device. Enriched cages can house approximately 10 birds. But the larger ones, called colony cages, can house dozens of birds. Colony cages were mandated in the EU as far back as 2012.
Caged hens will never see natural light and will never leave their cages and never breathe fresh air. The only time they will leave their cage is if they are sick, injured, die prematurely or when they are transported to slaughter.
Other housing and laying facilities may consist of multi-tier aviaries, single-tier barn systems, free-range or free-run.
However, these constitute a small minority of the housing systems used in overall global egg production. And while they are certainly better for the birds from a welfare standpoint, they are generally more expensive to manage and have higher mortality rates among the producers flock. As a result, this in turn drives up the cost of the eggs produced in these facilities making it less economically desirable.
Unfortunately, battery caged systems (conventional housing) remains the most profitable. And this is why the industry has resisted moving away from them.
The only source of light in a shed is artificial. The lighting is kept low to minimize hen activity. The light is often kept on at night and during the many hours of darkness in winter to keep the hens laying year round. Some jurisdictions mandate 8 hours of darkness every 24, but this will vary from country to country.
In caged systems hens can develop a plethora of health problems. Standing on wire floors all day can lead to foot problems. Often when a hen in a cage dies, and before workers have a chance to remove them, other hens have been observed standing on the dead body to alleviate the discomfort of standing on a wire mesh floor 24/7. Hens also suffer from feather loss due to physical and psychological stress brought on by intensive housing. Even foot-pad dermatitis and bumble-foot (something usually seen in chickens raised for meat) has been observed in egg-laying hens housed in free-run systems where there is poor litter, humidity control or ventilation.
Due to the amount of feces and urine ten's of thousands of birds in a shed can produce every single day, high levels of ammonia and toxic gases accumulate despite the ventilation systems in the barns. Some jurisdictions restrict allowable level of gases for the safety of workers. These gases are measured in ppm (parts per million), however, even when these gases are at "acceptable levels", workers sometimes have to wear breathing apparatus or filter masks to work in these facilities for longer periods of time. The consequence of these gases for the hens is eye infections, viral infections and upper respiratory infections.
"The practice of starving hens for profit is known as forced-molting. Molting literally refers to the replacement of old feathers by new ones. In nature, birds replace all their feathers in the course of a year to maintain good plumage at all times. A natural molt often happens at the onset of winter, when nature discourages the hatching of chicks. The hen stops laying eggs and concentrates her energies on staying warm and growing new feathers. The egg industry exploits this natural process by forcing an entire flock to molt simultaneously. This is done to manipulate the marketplace and to pump a few hundred more eggs out of exhausted hens when it is deemed cheaper to "recycle" them rather than immediately slaughter them after a year of relentless egg-laying on a calcium-deficient diet." - United Poultry Concerns. The practice of forced molting is still used in the United States but has been banned in the European Union.
Laying an egg through a hen’s oviduct is a difficult and labour intensive process. It requires a significant amount of nutrients drawn from the hen's body. An egg-shell is largely made up of calcium. For a hen to produce an egg it can draw approximately 10% of the calcium from her bones. Over her 18-24 month lifetime, the amount of calcium needed to produce 400+ eggs is 25-30x more calcium than she stores in her entire body during that period.
Calcium depletion can lead to weakened, fragile or brittle bone structures, osteoporosis and broken or fractured bones despite being supplemented with calcium in their diet. Fatty liver syndrome is an ailment that is not uncommon as their bodies work overtime to produce the fat and protein contained in the yolk.
Due to intensive confinement, cage layer fatigue can occur in which the hen’s body becomes weak and too fragile to stand. Hens that are unable to lay eggs may suffer from egg-binding. Hens only have one orifice through which they defecate, urinate and lay eggs – their cloaca. If a hen’s egg becomes stuck in her reproductive tract, this can lead to infections from eggs that are broken inside her body. And this can lead to egg yolk peritonitis, prolapses and ovarian cancer as the result of a rapidly-aged and overburdened reproductive system.
As it relates to ovarian cancer, the egg laying hen is the only non-human animal that spontaneously develops ovarian cancer with high prevalence. And because hens ovulate prolifically, their ovulation rate is highly correlated with increased risk. As such, egg laying hens were ideal animal models in human ovarian cancer research.
Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), sometimes known as "bulgy-eye" is a respiratory bacterial pathogen in commercial layers. "It can colonise systemically, is insidious in nature, and displays resistance to its host’s defence mechanisms. It is, therefore, difficult if not impossible to completely eliminate from the bodily tissues of egg-laying hens (Winner et al., 2000; Bradbury, 2005). The ramifications of these effects become pronounced on multi-age commercial layer operations where eradication of the disease is not feasible." - OpenAccessGovernment.org. And while there are vaccinations for MG, they are currently only able to mitigate a certain strain of the disease. As a consequence, these pathogens could be passed on to the human food supply when spent hens are sent to slaughter.
Blackhead disease (also known as histomoniasis), is mostly associated with turkeys, but can also affect egg-laying hens. Within the first few weeks of life, Blackhead can cause up to 30% mortality in flocks. This disease can affect the intestinal ceca and liver, causing tissue destruction. Symptoms can include yellow droppings and reddening of the skin and muscles. There is no known cure for Blackhead. However, there was one medication used in the past but was removed from the market due to health risk to humans.
Marek’s disease is yet another malady that can afflict egg-laying hens. It is a herpes viral infection in chickens and causes paralysis, weight loss and vision impairment. It is a respiratory disease and can spread quickly in flocks and has been found in birds up to 40 weeks of age. Marek’s can also cause birds to be more susceptible to other infections.
When a hen becomes aged, exhausted and depleted and she can no longer produce, she is sent to slaughter. This usually occurs somewhere around 18-24 months at a laying facility. The industry calls these birds spent hens. These hens are roughly pulled from their cages, stuffed into crates, loaded onto trucks and taken to slaughter. The most common method of slaughter is live shackling - this is where a worker holds the bird upside down and jams the bird's legs into a slotted shackle affixed to an overhead conveyor system. This conveyor system transports them to the stun bath (an electrified vat of water) to render them unconscious. Then they have their throats slit in an automated system utilizing spinning blades, and then to a scalding tank for defeathering. Unfortunately, some birds make it through to the end while still conscious having either missed the cutting blades and the stunning system failed to render them insensible.
Some jurisdictions have mandated birds be put through a CAK system (controlled atmosphere killing). This provides for the hens to be completely unconscious (or dead) prior to handling by humans on the processing line and thus reducing stress -- for both the birds and the humans.
At slaughter, hen's flesh or meat are used for low-grade chicken filler and soups. Hens that are too sick to go into the food system will either be shredded or gassed. Even hens from so called “organic”, “free-range” or “humane” egg laying facilities meet the same fate and can often end up on the same trucks and at the same slaughter facilities as caged hens.
Chickens and hens are social, sensitive and intelligent creatures. Studies have shown chickens have multiple communication calls and live within complex social structures. Some scientists have ranked a hen’s memory and cognitive ability, as high as some primates and even human toddlers. Chickens, like all animals, have emotions and demonstrate empathy to others and mourn the death of other birds. Chickens have even been known to exhibit Machiavellian tendencies, which means that they can deceive one another in order to benefit themselves. Males have been shown to make calls telling the females that food is available, when no food is nearby, so the males can have access to the females.
Free Range, Humane, Organic
Many egg producers will use certain labeling on their eggs like “free-range”, “humane” or “organic”. Free-range and humane can mean almost anything, are often arbitrary and are self-regulated by the industry itself. There is little governmental oversight to regulate consistent and accurate labeling and can mean different things depending on jurisdiction.
A shed based on a single-tier barn system can still contain around 20,000 hens and this can still be considered as "free-range". But this is far from the bucolic imagery we have of the by-gone days of family farming. And as long as producers can demonstrate that hens have access to the outside, they can be classified as such. However, in many jurisdictions, this only requires a small door that allows a handful of hens outside into a small pen at any one time.
There are only two companies that are responsible for the breeds used for all commercial egg-laying hens in the world. They come from either Hendrix or Lohmann. They collectively offer about 15 breeds in all. These breeds have all been selected and genetically manipulated for high egg output.
Whether housed in a cage or free-run system, the life of a hen is a life denied. Female birds are mutilated at a young age and denied their natural behaviors throughout their egg-laying cycle. They are subjected to horrible conditions, are at risk of diseases, excessively high rates of ovarian cancer, and live what can only be described as one of misery and deprivation. Forced molting is cruel and is designed to maximize production at a time in the hens brief lives when their production starts to decline due to reproductive exhaustion. Normally, the average life span of a hen is 10-20 years. In egg production, a hen’s life span is maybe 24 months. And then they are sent to slaughter when they are no longer profitable. Many argue that the male chicks have it better – they are killed at 1-2 days old and are spared the life the females are forced to endure.
While we at Egg-Truth advocate for the complete elimination of eggs from your diet for animal welfare and health reasons, we would encourage anyone who chooses not to remove eggs entirely from their diet to limit or reduce the amount of eggs you eat and consider many of the delicious egg alternatives available in stores and on-line. Allow compassion to be your guide in the food choices you make going forward.