It is estimated that more than 60 percent of the world’s eggs are produced in industrial systems that implement lower-welfare practices.
Culling of male chicks
In the global poultry sector chickens are bred and reared specifically for high egg or high meat production, creating different breeds with different characteristics. Male chicks from breeds raised for producing eggs are deemed unsuitable for meat production due to their slow growth rate and low breast meat yield and are therefore culled. When the next generation of egg-laying hens hatch, the chicks are sorted by gender. The female chicks are then raised to lay their own eggs, while the newly hatched male chicks are typically placed on a conveyer belt and ground up alive in a macerator.
7.9 billion hens are needed to lay eggs for the global market, resulting in over 7 billion one-day-old male chicks being killed each year by the commercial egg industry. In the US alone, over 350 million day-old male chicks are immediately killed by the extremely painful and barbaric practice of maceration. Countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands, have passed laws banning the practice of male chick culling in response to public outrage.
Modern commercial hens have been bred to produce large numbers of eggs. This depletes the hen’s store of calcium and can result in high levels of osteoporosis (brittle bones) and fractures. Restricted movement can also contribute to osteoporosis.
Hens often lose a large proportion of their feathers due to damage from the sides of the cage and pecking from other hens. To prevent feather pecking, chicks often have part of their beaks cut off without an anesthetic. While beak trimming with a blade became illegal in the UK in 2011, this technique, along with beak trimming with a specialized infrared light, remains legal in the US. Infrared beak trimming may be less painful than blade trimming, but it still removes a portion of the birds' beak, which may remain chronically painful and impact a hen’s ability to use its beak. The chicken's beak, as in all birds, is a complex sensory organ with numerous nerve endings. The beak not only serves to grasp and manipulate food items but is also used to manipulate non-food objects while exploring, drinking, and preening.
Cage confinement is regarded as one of the cruelest factory farming practices. There are two types of cages in which egg-laying hens are typically kept.
While barren battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012, 71 percent of US layers remain confined within them. Each battery cage houses up to 10 birds. The average space allowance per bird in a typical battery cage is less than a letter-size sheet of paper, and the height is just enough to allow the hen to stand.
The cages usually have a sloping wire mesh floor and are kept in rows stacked several tiers high. Each shed typically houses tens of thousands of hens this way, and the largest sheds can contain more than a hundred thousand birds. These buildings are typically artificially lit and ventilated. Caged hens may never experience natural light, fresh air, or get to walk on solid ground and do not leave their cages until they are gathered for slaughter.
While enriched cages provide slightly more space than battery cages (~20% more space) and can allow hens to express some of their natural behaviors, such as perching, dust-bathing, and nesting, these systems are still very restrictive. Hens cannot fly up to a high perch to be safe from feather pecking, the litter area is often very limited, and effective dust-bathing generally is not possible on the predominantly wire cage floors.
Enriched cages are not commonly used in the United States. However, the vast majority of hens in Europe are still housed in enriched cages with 60-80 other hens. Several tiers of crowded cages make inspection difficult, and in large cage sheds, injured birds are often left to die unnoticed. There are alternative methods of egg production that do not require hens to endure the suffering of cages.
A better way
Higher-welfare methods of egg production allow hens a better quality of life.