A Henís Life
Egg-laying hens are among the most abused animals in modern factory farming. Most eggs in Australia come from hens that spend their entire lives in tiny wire battery cages in long, enclosed warehouse-like buildings. Over 10 million laying hens are kept in these cages, unable even to stretch their wings. Each hen has less standing space than an A4 sheet of paper, and will never see the outside world.
Egg production systems compared
These eggs come from hens kept in tiny wire battery cages, who will never get a chance to spread their wings or to see sunlight. Cage eggs make up around 80 per cent of all eggs sold in Australia.
The hens laying barn-laid eggs are also kept permanently indoors in large enclosed warehouses, but are not kept in cages and have greater freedom of movement. Around 5 per cent of eggs sold in Australia are barn-laid.
Free range eggs
The hens that lay these eggs have some access to an outside environment. It is important to note though that many producers undergo no certification or auditing process to use the term "free range," meaning that standards may differ widely on a case by case basis. Around 15 per cent of eggs sold in Australia are labelled free range.
A note on ‘vegetarian eggs’
This term refers to the diet of the hens and not any specific welfare standard – these eggs may come from caged hens.
Problems with the battery cage system
Each hen in a battery cage is provided with floor space less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Typically three or more hens are kept in each cage, and each battery shed can hold tens of thousands of hens, with the cages stacked in tiers that can be five or even eight high. Battery hens have no chance to exhibit natural behaviours like stretch their wings, scratch, nest, dust bathe or roost.
The Codes of Practice for laying hens in place in the various States and Territories generally nominate a floorspace of 450cm2 or 550cm2 per hen as a recommended minimum depending on when the cages were installed. To put this into context, this is somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
Closely confined hens may peck at each other out of boredom and frustration. To avoid this, egg farmers cut off part of each hen’s beak with a hot blade. This mutilation causes the hen a great deal of pain at the time of the procedure, and some die from the stress. The beak is rich in nerve-endings, and the procedure can continue to cause pain for the remainder of the hen’s life.
Many battery hens suffer broken bones due to a lack of exercise, calcium depletion, and rough handling when they are eventually removed from their cages for slaughter.
Feather loss and injuries
Battery hens suffer from severe feather loss as their bodies rub against the wire of their cages and as their cage-mates peck at them. Open wounds are also commonplace for the same reasons.
Hens moult each year, temporarily ceasing egg laying and losing some feathers which in the wild they later regrow. To shock them into new egg-laying cycles more quickly, egg farmers deprive the hens of food and water.
There is no retirement home for commercial laying hens. Hens past their laying peak are a liability to the egg farmer, being killed at 1-2 years of age. This contrasts with a hen’s natural lifespan of around 10 years. Male chicks, roughly half of all chickens born, are of no value to the egg farmer and are killed within days of birth. Techniques used to kill male chicks and spent hens include being suffocated, crushed, gassed, and minced up in an industrial blender for chicken stock, pet food or compost.
What about free range?
While free range may be an improvement over the battery cage for laying hens, it is important to recognise that cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. We see the following problems with free range:
Premature death. Male chicks are useless to both cage and free range egg farmers and are killed within days of birth, while laying hens are also typically slaughtered as soon as their productivity declines, at a fraction of their natural lifespan.
The definition of “free range”. Stocking densities and a hen’s level of access to an outside environment may not match up to your expectations of the term “free range,” with many producers not having undergone any certification or auditing process. There has been an ongoing controversy over deceptive use of the free range label. In 2006, a Sydney Morning Herald report concluded that 20 per cent of eggs labelled free range may be deceptively labelled factory farmed eggs. The chairperson of the Australian Free Range Egg and Poultry Association suggested the actual picture may be even worse, saying “We believe as many as half the [free range] eggs sold in supermarkets are falsely labelled… It’s a big joke – the cage boys know they’re just shifting eggs from one grading floor to another, then packing them in free-range cartons.”