The Modern Henhouse

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The recall of more than half a billion potentially deadly eggs in the Fall of 2010—enough eggs to make an omelet for every person in America—focused public attention on several unsafe and cruel practices within the egg industry. And news of a historic agreement between the egg industry and welfare groups means that legislators will be giving attention to the conditions of laying hens. With hen housing debates in full swing and the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of birds at stake, Farm Forward wants you to have the facts about how America’s egg supply is produced.

Hen Housing Today

Here’s a breakdown of all modern forms of housing for laying hens:

  • Conventional battery cages: These cages are used to produce 95%1 of all eggs in America. Each hen is given roughly 67 sq. inches of cage space, less room than a single sheet of paper.2 The limited space and lack of enrichment in these cages does not allow for "species-specific" behaviors like nesting, which are crucial to basic welfare.3

Three additional categories of housing are employed on egg farms that provide the remaining 5% of our egg supply:

  • Enriched cages: Though the standards are loosely defined, enriched cages are intended to provide features like perches, nest boxes, litter, scratching areas, and additional space.4
  • Cage-free: Animals are kept in a barn or aviary setting with the birds generally housed on the floor.
  • Free-range: These operations are similar to cage-free operations but claim to provide "access to the outdoors." However, since "free-range" is not a term that is meaningfully regulated, consumers have virtually no way of knowing if the hens that laid their "free range" eggs are any better off than birds in cage-free systems.

The improvement of welfare in any of these three alternative systems is limited. They are still factory farm operations. As Farm Forward board member Jonathan Safran Foer explains in Eating Animals, "Cage-free . . . means no more or less than what it says—they are literally not in cages. [And] one can assume that most 'free-range' [and] 'cage-free' laying hens are debeaked, drugged, force molted, and cruelly slaughtered once 'spent.'"5

The Debate: Enriched Cages Versus Cage Free

There are two possible ways the industry is likely to proceed as it phases out its use of battery cages: battery cages will either be replaced with enriched cages or with cage-free operations. Segments of the poultry industry are presently favoring enhanced cages over cage-free systems.

Humane farming advocates—such as HSUS, The RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and others—have argued that cage-free systems of one kind or another provide better welfare than enhanced cages. Farm Forward stands with these organizations, Nicholas Kristof, Wal-Mart, Costco and countless others in urging industry to adopt cage-free production methods as part of a multifaceted approach to improving welfare standards for the millions of laying hens raised in the United States.

When combined with good management, enhanced cages and cage-free housing operations provide significant welfare advantages over battery cages, but no housing system can sufficiently improve the welfare of the Frankenstein breeds of laying hens currently used in the industry. The genetics and physiology of modern laying hens has been altered to maximize production at the expense of the animals' wellbeing. Virtually all hens bred to lay eggs suffer from skeletal weakness related to osteoporosis.6 As a result, the risk of bone-fractures during laying is very high, especially in cage-free systems.7 Moreover, as long as poultry producers continue to use hens bred with disregard for basic welfare, the morbidity and mortality rates of laying hens in cage-free operations is sometimes higher than in well-run systems that employ enhanced cages.8

In other words, cage-free systems may not be any more humane than enriched cage systems unless the genetics of the hens is taken into consideration. While it’s hard to imagine that any animal would be healthier if never allowed outside a cage, one can imagine disabilities that might make this so. Because of the profound genetic problems introduced in laying hens as they were bred for efficiency at the expense of welfare, virtually all laying hens today are disabled.

Clearly, talking about the cage or barn in which we raise laying hens is only half the picture of welfare. The other half is the genetic health of the animals. HSUS argues that "hens should be biologically sound and healthy, and able to move freely and without risk of injury, as they were before commercial breeding practices pushed them toward their biological limit. The solution to this problem should be pursued by science and industry in conjunction with the move toward cage-free systems."9 Farm Forward agrees.

Cage-free systems improve welfare for today's breeds of hens but, admittedly, industry is correct to note that so do enhanced cages. Farm Forward still favors a move towards cage-free operations over enhanced cages. We do so because as the poultry industry is pushed to return to more traditional genetics, the welfare possible in cage-free systems will far exceed the modest improvements in welfare possible in enhanced cages.

With your help, Farm Forward will continue to advocate for a more humane poultry industry that includes meaningful steps toward the reintroduction of high-welfare heritage genetics that allow birds to run, jump, and fly as they were meant to do. We hope you will join us.

Please join the Farm Forward mailing list to receive updates about our work within the egg industry and important information about how you can get involved.

  1. 1. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer estimates that 99 percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. come from factory farms. [Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009) 12.] United Egg Producers estimate that 95 percent of commercial egg production in the U.S. use caged production systems, and they estimate that the remaining 5 percent are cage-free. ["Animal Husbandry Guidelines For US Egg Laying Flocks," United Egg Producers, 1.]
  2. 2. "Animal Husbandry Guidelines For US Egg Laying Flocks," United Egg Producers, 18.
  3. 3. M. Baxter, "The Welfare Problems of Laying Hens in Battery Cages." in The Veterinary Record, Vol 134-24. (London: British Veterinary Association, 1994): 614.
  4. 4. "Welfare Implications of Laying Hen Housing," American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Division, 2010
  5. 5. Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009) 61.
  6. 6. “A Comparison of the Welfare of Hens in Battery Cages and Alternative Systems,” The Humane Society of the United States, 4.
  7. 7. “Welfare Aspects of Various Systems for Keeping Laying Hens,” European Food Safety Authority, Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, 37, 95.
  8. 8. V. Aerni, M.W.G. Brinkhof, B. Wechsler, H. Oester and E. Fröhlich et al., "Productivity and Mortality of Laying Hens in Aviaries: A Systematic Review." in World's Poultry Science Journal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 135.
  9. 9. “A Comparison of the Welfare of Hens in Battery Cages and Alternative Systems,” The Humane Society of the United States, 10.

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