Just over 11.5 billion eggs are consumed in the UK every year (around 32 million a day). Over 85 per cent of these are produced domestically, with the nation’s 29 million laying hens each laying an average of 314 eggs per year – nearly one per day (British Egg Information Service, website, 2011). In the wild hens would only lay 20 eggs in a whole year, but in farm sheds they are subjected to near constant lighting and fed high protein feed to increase egg production.
Worldwide, approximately 85 per cent of eggs are produced in battery cages. The United States still produces 95 per cent of their eggs in caged systems (United Egg Producers, 2010).
Types of housing
About 49 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK come from hens kept in cages (BEIS, website). Since the beginning of 2012 these are now so-called 'enriched cages'.
Previously, barren battery cages were used, in which each hen had just 550 cm2 of space – about the area of a sheet of A4 paper (DEFRA, 2002). As a hen's wingspan is 76-80 cm – about the width of four pieces of A4 paper – they spent their entire lives unable to spread their wings.
Without so much as a shred of straw for comfort, all of the hen's natural instincts – including nesting, perching, scratching and pecking – were denied. The bare wire mesh floor cut into the hens' feet and they were forced to balance on slopes of up to 12 degrees (DEFRA, 2002). This was convenient for collecting the eggs as they all roll to one side, but incredibly uncomfortable for the hens.
In 1999, the Council of the European Union judged that battery cages are so cruel they should be banned across the EU – but not until 2012 (OJ, 1999). However, the EU Directive still permited the use of 'enriched' or 'colony' cages after this date. Despite having over 12 years to prepare for this eventuality, several European countries failed to meet the deadline for ending the use of battery cages.
Also, despite the oft-heard assertion that the Britain leads the world in animal welfare standards, we are lagging behind a number of other European countries when it comes to hen welfare. Austria has already banned the battery cage (doing so in 2009) and is set to ban the 'enriched' cage by 2020 (CIWF, 2009). Belgium has also banned the battery cage – and proposes to ban 'enriched' cages by 2024 (European Egg Packers and Traders Association, 2010). Sweden, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already banned the battery cage ahead of 2012. Germany has introduced a 'family cage', which has more space than the 'enriched' cage used in other countries. However, consumers in Germany have been rejecting these eggs and insisting on free-range. Outside the EU, Switzerland has already banned both the battery and 'enriched' cage systems (RSPCA, 1998).
The new 'enriched' cages must provide 750 cm2 of space per hen as well as limited perching, nesting and scratching facilities (DEFRA, 2002). This meagre extra space requirement, less than a postcard sized space per bird, means hens will still be severely restricted and unable to stretch or flap their wings. As there will only be one nest box and very limited perching and dust bathing areas in each cage, the hens will be forced to compete for access to these sites. Dominant hens may prevent others from ever accessing these facilities.
Most birds in enriched cages will still spend a significant proportion of their time standing on sloping wire mesh floors with little room to move around, and they will all still be denied fresh air and sunshine. For these reasons, all of the major animal welfare organisations in the EU continue to push for a complete ban on cages – conventional and enriched.
Hens kept in both types of cage systems are routinely debeaked to prevent injury from aggressive cage-mates – a problem caused by the intensive conditions they are forced to endure (see more on debeaking below).
In late 2010, Viva! Filmed undercover filmed inside what is probably the largest 'enriched' cage unit in Britain. You can read more about our findings here.
Percheries (‘Barn eggs’)
About 4 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK are 'barn eggs' (BEIS, website). About 5 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK are ‘barn eggs’ (BEIS, website). While this term conjures up the image of a rustic hen house with a few dozen hens sitting peacefully on their own nests, the truth is somewhat different. Barn eggs actually come from hens kept in huge sheds called percheries. The number of birds in each perchery can be in the tens of thousands. However, the Lion code stipulates maximum flock size of 32,000 birds divided into colonies of 4,000 where flock size is over 6,000 birds in total. The EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive stipulates a maximum stocking density of 9 hens per square metre of useable floor space. Like enriched cages, percheries must provide perches, litter and nests, although there need only be one nest for every seven hens – leading to the same problem of competition for space as enriched cages. New percheries built since 2002 must provide 1100 cm2 of floor space per hen (about two pieces of A4 paper), but older percheries are allowed to provide as little as 830 cm2 per hen (DEFRA, 2005a). Hens kept in this intensive system never go outdoors and many are still routinely debeaked.
About 45 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK are free-range or organic (BEIS website). Eggs sold as ‘free-range’ must come from hens who have access to the outdoors. These hens are housed indoors in a perchery that must satisfy all the requirements listed above and, in addition, must have ‘popholes’ to access the outside. Hens must have continuous daytime access to runs with a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare (The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive). However, on average less than 10 per cent of the hens are outside at any given time, and many never go outside at all (Hegelund, 2005). Free-range farmers are encouraged, but not required, to make the outdoor range as attractive as possible so that the hens spend more time outdoors. But there is no way to tell from the egg carton whether the farmers have actually taken these measures, or whether the quality of life for their hens is just the same as for hens producing barn eggs.
All organic eggs are free-range, but not all free-range eggs are organic. To be sold as ‘organic’ in the UK, eggs must come from a farm that has been approved by one of ten certification bodies. However, not all of these organisations have the same standards for what makes a farm ‘organic’. There is a national set of minimum standards that all 10 certification bodies must use, but many employ their own stricter criteria.
The national standards (DEFRA, 2005b) specify that organic farmers must allow laying hens access to the outdoors, and must allow them 1666 cm2 of indoor floor space each. Routine debeaking is forbidden in organic egg production, so feather pecking can be a problem. Despite evidence that hens suffer greatly due to feather pecking when housed in flocks of more than 500 (Bestman 2003), organic egg farmers are permitted to keep hens in groups of up to 2500 under EU rules.
The strictest standards for organic egg production are those of the Soil Association. They do not certify farms with flocks of more than 1000 hens (but can certify flocks up to 2000 if “extra conditions are met”). This is still not ideal, but it means that hens on Soil Association certified farms are considerably less likely to be injured or killed by other hens. Cartons of eggs from Soil Association certified farms will bear the Soil Association logo. However, the Soil Association’s standards are difficult to apply on farms large enough to supply the major supermarkets, so you may have difficulty finding these eggs. Most Waitrose stores stock Soil Association certified eggs, as do many health food shops, farmers’ markets, organic box schemes and some greengrocers. Organic production fell in 2009, probably because of the economic climate.
Slaughter of healthy young animals is just as much a part of egg production as it is a part of meat production. All eggs on the market today come from hens destined to be sent to the slaughterhouse after just a fraction of their natural lifespan, and all laying hens had brothers whose lives were even shorter than theirs.
To do otherwise would require increasing the price of eggs several fold, and would make egg production an even more resource-intense operation than it already is. After one to two years of laying, the number of eggs a hen can produce starts to decline. Male chickens, of course, lay no eggs at all. Allowing these animals to live out their natural lives (which can last up to 16 years (Plott, 2006)) would require farmers to feed and house many times more birds than they currently do. This cost would be passed on to the consumer.
Chickens raised for meat are of a different breed from egg-laying chickens. Males of the egg laying breed do not gain weight fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. Very few of them are needed for breeding future generations of laying hens, so most are killed shortly after birth. It is estimated that between 30-40 day old male chicks are killed in Britain each year.
Lawful methods of doing this include ‘use of a mechanical apparatus producing immediate death’ (also known as a macerator), ‘exposure to gas mixtures’ and ‘dislocation of the neck’ (SI, 1995). Some male chicks are instead sold to laboratories, where they are used for vivisection experiments. The problem of unwanted male chicks exists in all methods of egg production, from battery cages to organic. Again, in 2010, Viva! Filmed undercover at two hatcheries that use maceration and gassing methods to dispose of male chicks and process females. You can view the footage and find out more here.
Female layers that are no longer productive are known as ‘spent hens’. All worn-out hens, whether conventionally farmed or organic, are slaughtered when their egg production drops. Typically, this is around 72 weeks.
Although their flesh is not of the same quality as that of chickens bred for their meat, it is still used in low-quality processed foods, such as soup, pies and baby food (Webster, 2004).
Weight-bearing exercise is one of the best things humans can do to keep their bones strong and prevent osteoporosis. The same is true for chickens, but hens kept in cages so crowded that they have barely enough space to move around don’t have much of a chance to exercise. This lack of exercise combined with the loss of calcium to the hundreds of eggshells produced over a hen’s lifetime works out to a high rate of osteoporosis and a lot of broken bones. In fact, more than 45 per cent of laying hens break a bone at some point during their lives (Webster, 2004).
Feather pecking and debeaking
Hens subjected to the stresses of modern farming conditions tend to peck at one another. ‘Aggressive pecking’ is directed at the head of another bird and ‘feather pecking’ is directed at the plumage. Hens will often rip out the feathers of other hens, or even peck them to death and engage in cannibalism. In one study of hens kept in enriched cages, more than one out of every 30 hens was killed and eaten by the other birds. Remarkably, this level of cannibalism was declared to be ‘relatively low and within the production standard’ (Weitzenburger, 2005). The same researchers found that although feather pecking is thought to be a redirection of hens’ natural instinct to peck at the ground, providing them with a dust bath and straw chaff for foraging did not always help.
When hens injure and kill one another in this way, it hurts the farmer’s bottom line. Dead hens obviously lay no eggs, and hens that have lost a lot of their feathers need to eat more in order to keep warm (Bestman, 2003), so it’s in the interests of the egg industry to minimise these injuries. The most common solution is to cut off part of each hen’s beak, a process which is performed without anaesthesia. Those in the egg industry refer to this process as ‘beak trimming’, which makes it sound like a manicure or a haircut – but unlike human nails and hair, the part of the beak that is cut is very sensitive to pain as it is highly innervated (Davis, 2004).
Hens whose beaks have been trimmed have difficulty eating properly later in life (Davis, 2004).
Beak trimming is currently prohibited in organic egg production. It was due to be banned in all UK farming in 2011, but the Government has delayed this until 2016 over fears of increased injury to birds kept in intensive – and even non-intensive – systems. Despite having a generous 8 years to prepare for this eventuality, the UK egg industry has generally failed to address what makes feather pecking and cannibalism endemic in much production. Again, the UK lags behind other EU countries – such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland – where beak trimming is either prohibited or does not generally take place (Barclay, 2010).
However, beak trimming with a hot blade has now been banned in the UK and only trimming with infrared is allowed (the process involves treating the hard keratin tip of the beak with infrared energy and the tip is supposed to fall away after a few days). The Farm Animal Welfare Council has said that whatever the process, removing the tip of a beak is nothing short of a “mutilation” (FAWC 2007). Despite being promoted as less painful and traumatic than hot blade trimming, studies have shown that this method still causes pain – and in some cases birds that have had their beaks trimmed with infrared eating less and being less active (which could be strongly indicative of lasting pain) (Marchant-Forde et al, 2008).
Although preferable, an end to beak trimming is not without its problems. Beak trimming has been prohibited in Sweden since 1999, and an investigation into Swedish egg farms in 2002 found “a large number of birds” with “denuded parts of the body” due to feather pecking (Oden, 2002).
The egg industry is working on other methods of lessening the impact of pecking and cannibalism, either by addressing the causes of the behaviour or by breeding hens that are less aggressive by nature. But it’s not likely that these injuries will be eliminated entirely, since that would be prohibitively expensive.
The number one reason for stereotypical and aggressive behaviour in laying hens is squarely down to the unnatural way they are kept, which – even in higher welfare cases – does not truly reflect their natural state nor allow them to express all natural behaviours. Sanctuaries which offer hens a genuinely free-range life in small flocks find that birds do not feather pick and have healthy, shining feathers.
When you factor in the fact that, even on organic systems, almost all male chicks are killed at birth it is an unavoidable truth that modern egg production causes pain and suffering. That is why Viva! advocates avoiding eggs and following a vegan diet.
Bestman MWP, Wagenaar JP (2003) Farm level factors associated with feather pecking in organic laying hens, Livestock Production Science 80: 133-140.
British Egg Information Service [BEIS] website, http://www.britegg.co.uk/ukeggs05/ukeggs4.html, accessed 08/10/06.
Davis GS, Anderson KE, Jones DR (2004) The Effects of Different Beak Trimming Techniques on
Plasma Corticosterone and Performance Criteria in Single Comb White Leghorn Chickens, Poultry Science 83: 1624-1628
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] (2002) Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] (2005a) Explanatory Leaflet on the
Production Methods for Free Range and Barn Eggs marketed under the Egg Marketing Regulations.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] (2005b) Compendium of UK organic standards.
Hegelund L et al (2005) Use of the range area in organic egg production systems: effect of climatic factors, flock size, age and artificial cover, British Poultry Science 46: 1-8.
Leyendecker M, et al. (2005) Keeping laying hens in furnished cages and an aviary housing system enhances their bone stability, British Poultry Science 46: 536-544.
Oden K et al (2002) Behaviour of laying hens in two types of aviary systems on 25 commercial farms in Sweden, British Poultry Science 43: 169-181.
Official Journal of the European Communities [OJ] (1999) Council Directive 1999/74/EC, 53-57.
Plott B (2006) Matilda – world’s oldest chicken – dies at 16, Birmingham News, 14/02/2006.
Soil Association (2003) Soil Association Registered Organic Eggs, Fact Sheet 06/01/2003.
Statutory Instrument [SI] (1995) No. 731, The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations
1995, Schedule 11, Regulation 19.
Webster AB (2004) Welfare Implications of Avian Osteoporosis, Poultry Science 83: 184-192.
Weitzenburger D, Vits A, Hamann H, Distl O (2005) Effect of furnished small group housing systems and furnished cages on mortality and causes of death in two layer strains, British Poultry Science 46: 553-559.
MEP blasts EU cage ban as 'shambles' (2011) http://www.farminguk.com/news/MEP-blasts-EU-cage-ban-as-shambles_19456.html
Opinion of Beak Trimming on Laying Hens (2007), FAWC http://www.fawc.org.uk/pdf/beak-trimming.pdf
R. M. Marchant-Forde, A. G. Fahey, and H. W. Cheng (2008) Comparative Effects of Infrared and One-Third Hot-Blade Trimming on Beak Topography, Behavior, and Growth, Poultry Science http://ps.fass.org/cgi/content/full/87/8/1474
Barclay A, Battery Hens, Science and Environment Section, House of Commons Library http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/lib/research/briefings/snsc-01367.pdf
Feathering whose nest? (1998), RSPCA http://www.rspca.org.uk/servlet/BlobServer?blobtable=RSPCABlob&blobcol=urlblob&blobkey=id&blobwhere=1024473704885&blobheader=application/pdf
United Egg Producrs (UEP) report, 2010 http://www.thepoultrysite.com/poultrynews/21221/iec-report-85-per-cent-of-eggs-from-battery-cages
European Egg Packers and Traders Association (2010), EU cage ban imminent http://www.eepta.eu/News/Detail.aspx?nwqd=6651e140-4032-4834-a02a-43c6db5733ea
http://www.intervet.co.th/binaries/41%20Economic%20consequences%20of%20an%20EU%20ban%20on%20enriched%20cages_tcm125-163978.pdf (talks about German family cages)
http://www.smallholder.co.uk/news/4689967.Germany_feels_impact_of_cage_ban_ahead_of_EU_wide_ban_in_2012/ (small holders: says German retailers may force birds out of cages)
http://www.eepta.eu/News/Detail.aspx?nwqd=6651e140-4032-4834-a02a-43c6db5733ea (good overview of different countries in EU)
“Germany is one country that has ‘gold plated’ the directive, banning conventional cages
from 1 January 2010 and enriched cages from 1 January 2012. This highlights the political
success of the Green Party in Germany and shows the intensity with which animal welfare
groups fought against keeping laying hens in conventional cages. The use of conventional
cages is also banned in Switzerland (since 1992), Belgium, Austria, Sweden and the
Also says that:
German shoppers have rejected eggs from caged systems – even ‘enriched’ ones.