In Canada, 98% – or 26 million – of the nation's egg-laying chickens are kept in battery cages,1 small wire cages with slanted floors in which 5 to 7 hens remain for their entire lives. At between one and two years of age, they are considered "spent" and are slaughtered. Chickens can live more than ten years.
The average Canadian battery cage farm contains 17,100 birds.2
The cages are approximately 20 by 20 inches square, meaning that the birds do not even have enough room to stretch one wing. Each bird has about 1/2 square foot of space, basically about 3/4 the area of a standard piece of letter-sized paper.3 She requires 144 square inches to stretch her wings and 303 to flap them. The Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl, which is the standard for all Canadian egg farmers, gives each bird 67 square inches.4
Experience Life in a Virtual Battery Cage:
"When I visited a large egg layer operation and saw old hens that had reached the end of their productive life, I was horrified,"said Temple Grandin, farm animal welfare scientist. "Egg layers bred for maximum egg production and the most efficient feed conversion were nervous wrecks that had beaten off half their feathers by constant flapping against the cage."5 They stay in these cages for anywhere from one year to a year and a half, before being classified as "spent hens." They are then killed and turned into soup, pot pies, or any low-grade meat product that hides bruising.6
In a particularly famous case of cruelty, 30,000 of these "spent hens" were thrown live into a wood chipper in a California farm in 2003. County reports describe workers at the ranch "feeding squirming birds by the bucket into the pounding machine." Though the public raised considerable outcry, the owners of the egg farm were not prosecuted by the district attorney, who described the killing of hens with a wood chipper as common industry practice. Veterinarians involved in the case referred to it as an "approved method" of disposing of spent hens.7
To increase the laying capacity of hens who might otherwise be considered spent, the industry occasionally utilizes what is known as "force-moulting". This practice is more common in Canada than in the United States, and involves starving chickens for up to 18 days in total darkness in an attempt to shock their body into another laying cycle. They are also not allowed any water during this period. 5 to 10% of the birds die during this period, and those that survive lose up to a quarter of their body weight.8 In nature, hens generally experience a natural molt near the beginning of winter. They stop laying eggs and their energies are spent growing new feathers and staying warm. Force-molting is the egg industry’s way of exploiting this process: it’s a cost-efficient way to squeeze the last few pennies out of layer hens that, at a fifth of their natural lifespan, are physically exhausted and no longer laying eggs at a profitable rate. An account of force-molting from Cal-Maine Egg Producers:
“Our chicken houses hold 126,000 give or take a few hundred. Our molts usually last about 12 days and during the molt we lose right around 50 birds a day. The last couple of days of the molt before we feed them we lose 100 to 150. The day we feed them we lose about 200-250 hens within a few hours after we feed them. The hens tend to gorge themselves and choke on the feed as they try to eat too much too soon, or at least that’s what we believe.”
Surplus male chicks
Because these chickens are bred for maximum egg-laying capacity, any males are surplus. They are disposed of generally through two common methods: either simply throwing them into dumpsters to starve to death, or grinding them up alive.9 This is the process suggested by the The Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl. Neither option resembles anything remotely close to humane; in the first, the chicks are left to starve to death or are crushed to death under the weight of many others, and in the second: "Even after twenty seconds," described one research scientist, "there were only partly damaged animals with whole skulls".10
Intensive confinement causes the birds to peck aggressively at the other hens in their cage. Rather than give them more space, the industry debeaks the chickens during the first days of their lives. The ends of their beaks are cut off or burned off to prevent them from attacking each other in their crowded and unnatural conditions.11 No anesthesia or painkiller is used. This process deprives these birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input.12 It has been compared to having the ends of your fingers removed. A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore her environment fully, nor can she preen herself or her flockmates. She may also experience acute and chronic pain in her beak, head, and face.13
Diseases and welfare
Ailments of all kinds are common among these birds. Because the battery cages are stacked row upon row, 2 to 8 cages high, chickens in lower cages are covered in the feces of those above them. Foot disorders are frequent as the birds struggle to stand on the tilted wire floors. Many chickens lose the majority of their feathers as frustration and anxiety cause them to rub against the bars of their cages; additionally, being trampled by their cagemates contributes to feather loss. Severe osteoporosis and premature death are also common. 14
Ammonia rising from manure piles beneath the cages causes a condition known as "ammonia burn", a corneal ulcer that often causes blindness.15 Occasionally, birds escape through the bars of their cages and fall below them. They are trapped there in the manure piles 3 feet deep. 16
Footage taken at a veterinarian-owned battery cage farm in Guelph, Ontario showed a complete lack of concern for the welfare of the chickens. (See it here.)
“Government and industry are constantly reassuring consumers that things are better for farm animals here in Canada,” stated Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society. “We have long suspected that’s not the case and now we have the proof. This footage shows filthy, disgusting, hideously abusive conditions."17
“The LEL farm is not that different from other battery hen farms. Pretty much status quo,” said Stephanie Brown, a director at the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. “Might be a tad dirtier, and the cages are old, but it's battery-hen reality.” 18
Battery cages have aroused the ire of compassionate people worldwide. In the EU, they are being phased out in favour of "enriched cages", which are slightly larger and allow the birds some litter in which to scratch. (While enriched cages are a minor step up from standard battery ones, scientific evidence indicates that the welfare of the chickens is still significantly compromised.19) Switzerland banned battery cages in 1992, and Germany banned them in 2007 and will have enriched cages by 2012. In 2004, the EU introduced a mandatory labelling program that identifies whether the chickens are caged, free range, raised in a barn, etcetera, but it appears that the rules are not being followed yet.20
There are no similar legally-enforced laws in North America, where conditions for egg-laying hens continue to be bleak and finding out where supermarket eggs come from is a challenge. Currently, the only label with third party certification is "certified organic," which requires that the chickens be fed an organic diet, and that they have access to the outdoors, though how much or for how long is not specified. Mutilations like debeaking are legal, and humane slaughter and transport are not regulated. Other labels, such as "free range" and "free run", are sometimes the exact opposite of what they imply. (Learn more about organic, free range, and free run here.)
“Just because it says free-range does not mean that it is welfare-friendly.”
—Dr. Charles Olentine, editor of Egg Industry magazine, an industry trade journal 21
The best way to avoid supporting the cruelty of the egg industry is to go vegan. After all, male chicks are still considered surplus even in the organic egg industry, and spent organic hens often end up in the same slaughterhouses as their battery caged counterparts.22 Learn more about organic and free-range eggs at our page here.
For more pictures, please click here.
- 1. Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, "Battery Cages"
- 2. Humane Society International, "No Battery Eggs", 2009
- 3. Amie Hafner, "Oral Statement by MFA investigator Amie Hafner Presented on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference at the Ohio Statehouse Atrium", 2001
- 4. United Poultry Concerns, How Eggs Are Laid in Canada, 2006
- 5. Grandin, Temple, PhD, Paper presented at National Institute of Animal Agriculture, 2001 April 4
- 6. Farm Sanctuary, "Egg Production", 2007
- 7. Chong, Jia-Rui, Wood-chipped chickens fuel outrage, Los Angeles Times, 2003 November 22
- 8. Farm Sanctuary, "Egg Production", 2007
- 9. ibid.
- 10. F. Henry, Megafarming: size brings conflict. The Plain Dealer. 1 June, 2003
- 11. ThePoultrySite.com, Unintended Consequences of Confined Animal Facilities, 2004 November
- 12. Philip C. Glatz, ed., Beak Trimming, 2005, p. 77
- 13. Philip C. Glatz, ed., Beak Trimming, 2005, p. 47
- 14. Amie Hafner, Oral Statement by MFA investigator Amie Hafner Presented on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference at the Ohio Statehouse Atrium, 2001
- 15. Nathan Runkle, Oral Statement by MFA Director Nathan Runkle Presented at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference, no date
- 16. Vancouver Humane Society, Battery Egg Farms: Alternatives, 2007
- 17. Ibid.
- 18. United Poultry Concerns, How Eggs Are Laid in Canada, 2006
- 19. Compassion in World Farming, No Cages for Laying Hens and Clearer Egg Labelling
- 20. Ibid.
- 21. Charles Olentine, "Welfare and the Egg Industry: The Best Defense Is an Offense," Egg Industry, October 2002, p. 24
- 22. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007