What is an Egg Factory Like?
Immense, frightening, smelling of death and disease. They sit on vast stretches of land, countless rows of giant metal structures protruding into the sky. From a distance, you can get an eerie sense of the overwhelming number of birds who live day after day, minute after minute, inside the long windowless sheds. But the hens are invisible; there is no big sign proudly announcing that this enormous factory, stinking for miles and spilling forth a lake of manure, is where your eggs come from.
In battery cage facilities, eggs are not laid, they are manufactured. Because hens do not naturally lay eggs at a rate which would profit businesses to a satisfactory degree, their bodies are manipulated and forced to produce an abnormal number of eggs. Dim electric lights are kept on for 16 or 17 hours a day, artificially stimulating the hens' biological rhythms of reproduction. During 'lights on' in a battery cage facility, the atmosphere is one of intense distress. Feeders are operating, which leaves hens battling for a spot at the front of their tiny, overcrowded cage. Those too weak to move towards the feeding tray lie silently on the wire floor of their lifelong prison, slowly starving to death, trampled by their cagemates. From rows of cages stacked floor to ceiling, the hens cry out. The air is dense with the screams of thousands of birds who are suffering extreme physical and psychological pain.
The Battery Cage
Battery cages are small wire cages used to confine hens in egg-producing factories for the entirety of their short, painful lives. Cages are too small to allow for a normal upright standing position, much less stretching, unfolding wings, or exercising. The United Egg Producers claim each hen needs only 48 square inches of floor space. This is not enough room for a hen to carry on any of the normal activities that bring her pleasure, such as preening and dustbathing. And while this space allowance is already far too small, many hens in egg factories don't even receive that much space. In actuality they are crowded into cages without regard for quantity or density. I have seen as many as ten hens crammed into a single cage (with floorspace the size of a folded newspaper), their bodies so tightly compressed that when a single hen attempts to move the entire population of the cage feels the pressure and responds with an explosion of shrill cries.
The floors of battery cages are made of wire so that waste drops through onto a conveyor belt (this does not prevent waste from accumulating on the sides of cages, in the feeding tray, in the egg receptacle, and on the chickens themselves). The feet and legs of chickens, designed for an outdoor life of scratching the ground in search of food, contain complex joints full of tiny bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments. The wire floors of battery cages, coupled with the fact that the hens are unable to properly exercise their legs and scratch, results in painful, often crippling deformities of the legs and feet. Hens' claws, which are meant to be short and blunt from use, grow long and twisted. In some cases the claws literally grow around the floor of the cage, immobilizing the hen completely. Eventually she will starve to death.
The hen uses her beak in much the same way humans use their fingertips: to explore, grasp, and manipulate objects. A hen in the wild carefully rotates her eggs numerous times each day with her beak. It is also used for feeding, pecking, cleaning feathers (preening), nest-building, and defense. The beak is made of a material that is sensitive to pressure, heat, and pain. Despite the vital importance of her beak in many of a hen's activities, it is routine practice in the egg industry to slice off, using a hot metal blade, up to two-thirds of her beak. This practice is known as debeaking, but it would be no exaggeration to refer to it as amputation. For a hen, removal of part of the beak is physically crippling. It is equivalent to a human whose fingers have been completely severed off, leaving only lumps of flesh to use as inept hands.
Aside from the initial pain of the beak being cut off with a 1500F blade, the procedure often leaves hens with mouth blisters, neuromas, infections, and severed tongues. All hens, regardless, are left in a state of chronic pain and physical debilitation. They are unable to properly clean their feathers, they grow idle and depressed, and some even starve themselves because eating (the pressure of a mutilated beak hitting the bottom of a metal feeding tray) is so painful.
The egg industry justifies the cruelty of debeaking by saying it prevents "cannibalism" among the hens. This is a misuse of the word; chickens do not and will not eat each other's flesh. Egg producers and those who support their practices use the word cannibalism to reassure potentially concerned consumers that debeaking is necessary for the safety and well-being of the hens. While cannibalism does not in fact occur, hens in factory farms do display a distorted behavior of defense that is caused by abnormal levels of stress, crowding, and the restriction of normal activities, which is what they experience during life in a cage.
Forced molting is one of the most gruesome practices in animal agriculture. It entails depriving birds of food and water for up to three weeks as a way to stimulate egg-laying in hens whose bodies are already depleted. The forced molt is a final way to exploit hens before they become "worthless" as egg-laying machines, at which point they're slaughtered for low-grade meat.
Many hens who were already weak die during forced molts. Their bodies may lay around in cages with other living hens for days or weeks before being discovered and removed. Those birds who do survive may be molted two or three more times before they're slaughtered.
Starvation obviously has an impact on the health of the hens and consequently on the quality of the eggs they produce. Studies have linked the presence of Salmonella enteritidis in eggs to the practice of forced molting. Instead of tackling this problem at the source, the USDA looks for peripheral ways to keep people from killing themselves by eating infected egg products: labeling cartons, providing restaurants with explicit directions for cooking and storage, etc. These tactics dismiss the fact that there's something very wrong with poisoned eggs in the first place. It is avoided because forced molting is profitable for the egg industry.
Use of the Battery Cage in the US
In order to mass produce eggs at a price which both pleases consumers and makes companies rich, hens are forced to endure confinement, overcrowding, generalized filth and disease, painful mutilations, and periodic starvation on factory farms. Rules and regulations for the humane treatment of 'production animals' in the United States are nonexistent. In 1999, the Agricultural Ministers for the European Union reviewed many scientific studies on the welfare of hens raised in battery cages, decided battery cages were cruel, and passed a law to phase them out within the European Union. Unfortunately, battery cages are still legal in the United States and are widely used. 98% of the country's eggs are produced by hens confined in battery cages.
European Union ban of battery cages:
United Poultry Concerns press release
1981 ban in Switzerland:
Animal Welfare Institute