Australians’ insatiable demand for eggs has created a half-billion dollar industry that produces 12.9 million eggs per day. Tireless activism from Animal Liberation and others has led to greater consumer awareness, resulting in a reduced demand for caged eggs. However, approximately 70% of all eggs consumed in Australia are still produced in the brutal, battery cage system.
Layer hens who are forced into lives of production and servitude do not fare well under this system. They are crammed together in tiny cages stacked one on top of the other. In these cages, hens can’t stretch out their wings, have no opportunity to perform natural behaviours such as dust-bathing, perching and nesting, and suffer horrific injuries from the wire their cages are made from.
Hens are ‘de-beaked’ – have their beaks cut off without anaesthetic – in order to stop them pecking at each other. This pecking only occurs, however, because of the extreme stress and pain they suffer from being kept in cages.
Cycles of artificial lighting and starvation, together with unnatural diets, leads to hens producing far more eggs than they would naturally. Once their productivity declines – around 18 months – they are slaughtered, well short of the 7-20 years hens live in the wild. And the millions of male chicks born into the system, who are useless as they cannot lay eggs, are killed within days of birth.
Many of these issues exist for hens in so-called free-range systems too. There is no legislation that defines what ‘free-range’, or terms such as ‘organic’ even mean. Many consumers are duped by clever marketing into buying eggs from hens who have suffered horribly.
Surgery without pain relief
Many nerves exist in the beak, and these are cut or lasered through, resulting in extreme pain – and sometimes even death from shock. Hens may continue to experience pain for the rest of their lives, many having great difficulty eating.
Injury and illness
A battery cage is typically half the size of an average hen’s wingspan, yet houses 3-7 hens at any one time. The cage is made of wire, which cruelly cuts into hens’ feet. It can happen that, because there is no room for the hens to move inside the cage, their claws grow around the wire, resulting in them dying of starvation because they can’t reach the food. Dead birds can remain in the cage with live ones for days before a worker notices and removes the body.
Layer hens are prone to bone breakages. Their bones are brittle through over-production of eggs and lack of exercise. A high percentage of caged hens have osteoporosis, and research shows up to 56% suffer painful fractures.
In nature, hens moult in Autumn and are off-lay for 2-3 months to rest. Battery farmers, despite forced production being illegal, sometimes reduce this non-productive period by semi or total starvation of the hens, in order to bring them back on-lay more quickly. Many hens die during this process.
Already over-bred for peak laying capacity, the hen’s body is pushed further by lighting programs which stimulate her to lay even more eggs. Prolapse and tumours are common, as is acute calcium deficiency leading to “layer fatigue”. This occurs when the hen’s body can take no more and she finally collapses.
Layer chickens are a different species to those bred for meat see broiler chickens. Therefore, male chicks born to layer hens in all systems of egg production are classed as ‘waste’ and are killed. Approximately 12 million male chicks are killed in Australia each year.
Legislation required that they be killed humanely. However, when the RSPCA considers processes such as maceration (being ground to death) and carbon dioxide poisoning to be ‘humane’, there can be little doubt that these chicks suffer horrendous deaths.
In the wild, hens can live up to 20 years, with the average being around 13 years. However, those used in egg production have their lives cut short once the number of eggs they lay starts decreasing. Battery hens are sent to the slaughter when they are 18-24 months old.
The free range industry also has many issues:
- male chicks are considered waste, just like in the battery cage system, and are therefore killed at birth
- there is no legal definition of free range, so consumers cannot be certain of the conditions the hens who produced their eggs are kept in
- egg producers can become accredited as free range, however, these accreditations are industry-regulated, and not defined by law