Egg Industry Overview

“Please, never, ever, call me a battery hen. . . . I am in a battery cage, and I do live on a battery farm. But I am not, repeat not a battery hen. . . . I, Minny, am a proud descendant of the Red Jungle Fowl.” – Clare Druce, Minny’s Dream

Approximately 95% of eggs consumed in the US and elsewhere come from hens housed in “battery” facilities.  As Sandra Higgins of Eden Farm Sanctuary in Ireland explains:

The word ‘battery’ has several meanings.  In the context of the egg production industry, it refers to a system of confinement of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual hens in vast, windowless warehouses containing several thousand identical cages arranged in batteries of rows and tiers.  The word ‘battery’ has another meaning:  to beat or assault.  Examination of the assault on the minds and bodies of the individual hens imprisoned in this system deems the word ‘battery’ an appropriate description of the suffering and exploitation that the egg production industry inflicts on billions of hens each year.  Perhaps the most significant and constant suffering that every individual confined hen sustains is the inability to engage in the behaviors that are governed by her natural, species specific instinctual desires, which artificial breeding has not eliminated.  Some have termed these desires ‘ancestral memories’; they include the desire to nest and hatch young and to dust-bathe.

Battery cages, first implemented in the 1930s, were initially designed to track egg production (and identify the least productive hens for “culling”).  They have since been marketed as increasing cleanliness by separating the birds and the eggs from manure; however, in many facilities, the excrement from the hens in the higher cages falls on the hens below them.  Perhaps most importantly, battery cages, with their sloping wire floors, egg conveyor belts, and automated feeders and waterers, allow farmers to minimize their contact with—and care of—the birds.  Increasingly automated systems allow only a few workers to manage a facility containing up to a million birds.  Workers try to avoid spending time in the chicken houses, as the ammonia levels are so high that they must wear masks.  The chickens, of course, spend their entire lives in this environment without any respiratory protection.  Crowded in a cage that measures 15-16 inches high, 12 inches deep, and 18-20 inches wide with five or more other hens, each hen is allotted 67 square inches (432 cm2) for the entirety of her life—a space slightly smaller than an iPad.


Space Required


74 in2  (477 cm2)


84 - 156 in2 (540 - 1006 cm2)

Wing Stretching

101 – 173 in2 (653 - 1118 cm2)

Wing Flapping

133 - 304  in2 (860 - 1980 cm2)

Feather Ruffling

105-249 in2 (676 - 1604 cm2)


126 - 197  in2 (814 - 1270 cm2)

Ground Scratching

84 - 156 in2 (540 - 1005 cm2)


Egg-laying hens have been specially bred to lay upward of 300 eggs each year, whereas they would naturally lay only a few clutches of 8-16 eggs a year.  Lights are left on for approximately 17 hours each day to encourage laying.  Historically, egg producers have also periodically withheld feed from their hens for up to two weeks at a time, with the intention of “restarting” the hens’ laying cycles.  Following a 13-year campaign by United Poultry Concerns and other chicken advocates, the industry trade group United Egg Producers no longer supports this practice, termed “forced molting”; however some farmers continue the practice annually.

After one and a half to two years, a hen’s egg production begins to decrease.  If a farmer does not force molt to get another year out of the flock, the hens are slaughtered, their worn-out bodies destined for soup, pet food, or other low-grade meat.  The hens’ bodies have been so destroyed and are seen as so worthless that many producers simply dispose of their “spent” hens by gassing them, burying them alive, or even grinding them in a woodchipper.


Health related issues of egg-laying hens and "solutions" to problems associated with intensive confinement:

A UK study found that 29% of “spent” hens arrive at the slaughterhouse with broken bones from calcium loss and rough handling.  Many more have tumors, abscesses, or are bleeding internally.

Chickens subject to intensive crowding and confinement may start pecking at each other from aggression, frustration, boredom, or misdirected foraging and dustbathing.  What starts as feather picking can end in cannibalism, as the victim is unable to escape the aggressor.  Instead of allowing hens to engage in natural behaviors and healthy relationships, producers look for various ways to inhibit pecking ability.  Most layer hens undergo debeaking, in which the tips of their beaks are seared off, as day old chicks.  This blunts the beak, limiting the damage it can cause, but is extremely painful and can inhibit birds’ ability to eat, drink, and preen themselves.

Other methods to prevent feather picking include “blinders” or “spectacles,” which obstruct the chicken’s vision.  Sometimes “spectacles” are fitted with red glass, which is meant to calm chickens and to prevent them from seeing blood, which can instigate pecking.  These devices are no longer widely used among laying hens.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a company called Animalens experimented with using red contact lenses in laying hens, the idea being that, like the red “spectacles,” they would calm the hens and also increase feed efficiency.  As United Poultry Concerns discovered when they investigated the issue, the oversized plastic lenses prevented oxygen from reaching the eyeball, causing ulceration and infection.  Furthermore, the lenses, which were inserted by unskilled workers, were never removed for veterinary inspection or treatment.  Fortunately, the contact lenses were never adopted by the poultry industry and Animalens discontinued production.

Today, several researchers argue for breeding blind chickens, claiming they don’t mind living in crowded quarters and that they even lay more eggs than their sighted counterparts.  Others envision a day when chickens are bred to be completely mindless—even headless—strung together by a network of life-support machines.




Athena and the Turlock Rescue

By: Marji Beach, Education Director, Animal Place

(Letter to a Turlock Hen by Dana Portnoy below)

Athena is one of 4,100 hens Animal Place took in between February 22-23, 2012 during the largest rescue of farmed animals in California history. An egg farmer in central California could no longer afford feed and abandoned the hens in his care to starvation. The 50,000 hens, all confined in cages, were left without food for more than two weeks *. When authorities were alerted to the farm, more than 17,000 hens had already died and officials were gassing the remaining 33,000. Animal Place, with assistance from groups like Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, coordinated the rescue and took in 4,100 of the 4,460 hens saved by rescuers. Upon arrival to our sanctuary, many of the hens needed triage care, including Athena.

Weighing only a pound, Athena had lost 50% of her body mass to starvation. Her face says it all – she has almost given up on life. She suffered immensely on the egg farm – she was de-beaked (in which a portion of her nerve-sensitive beak had been cut off) and crammed in a cage with several other hens. Never able to spread her wings or make a nest, she could only move a few inches, her feet cutting into painful metal flooring. But she is a survivor. After fluids and special feed, she began to slowly gain weight. It would take months to completely heal but heal she did. She is one of the 100 hens saved from this rescue who found permanent placement at Animal Place sanctuary. They were all named after goddesses.

The surviving hens were all placed into permanent loving homes through Animal Place’s Rescue Ranch program or their animal shelter partnership program. Groups like the Marin Humane Society, Sonoma Humane Society, and the Sacramento SPCA all assisted in taking in some of these hens and finding them good homes. This monumental rescue effort may have been spearheaded by Animal Place but it was a truly remarkable display of collaboration amongst organizations, volunteers, and adopters.

*While their starvation was particularly egregious, on any given day 10% of the 400 million hens on egg farms are being starved during a process called forced molting. The starvation forces the hens to shed their feathers and reproductive lining to start a new egg-laying cycle. They can be legally starved for 10-12 days.


Letter to a Turlock Hen

Dana Portnoy, Volunteer, Animal Place

One year ago you were saved from the abandoned egg farm in Turlock. When you arrived at Animal Place, you were so weak you couldn't stand and were barely breathing. I was working in the emergency medical triage. I picked you up and gently placed you in my lap. Your dehydration was so severe, you needed IV fluids. I carefully placed the syringe under your paper-thin skin and administered fluids. I told you everything was going to be ok, you were safe. I gently pet your feathers. After a few minutes, I saw the life return to your eyes. You looked up at me. I placed a few drops of a watery scratch in your mouth and you slowly began to perk up. You drank a few drops of water on your own and pecked at some scratch. It was time for me to treat another hen, but you didn't want to leave my lap. It was the first comfort and compassion you had received in your short, miserable life. So we continued to sit and I kept telling you it was going to be ok, you were safe.



“Here the birds are locked up, trapped twice, doubly trapped. First you are in a cage, and then you are in this building loaded with all these pathogens and flies and toxic gases and lights burning in a stinking, cobwebby gloom. There is an endless sound of machines and distressed birds all around you. You can’t even describe it to people. What we need in addition to video footage is for something to enable people to smell what it is like in there. These birds are creatures with wings and legs. To take creatures with wings and legs and never let them take a step is horrible.”

—Karen Davis[1]



[1] Davis, Karen. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. Summertown, Tenn: Book Pub. Co, 1996. Print.



Enriched Cages, Embodied Prisons, and the Joy of Freedom

Sandra Higgins, BSc (Hons) Psych, MSc Couns Psych, 
Director, Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary, Ireland
In January 2012 the European Union banned barren battery cages and replaced them with ‘enriched’ battery cages. The degree to which any cage ‘enriches’ is highly questionable.  All hens, caged and uncaged, suffer the exploitation of living in embodied prisons by virtue of being bred for exploitation of their reproductive systems.  Cages are an additional loss of liberty and inflict immense suffering.  
Enriched or more accurately termed ‘furnished’ battery cages have mandatory perches, nesting areas, scratch pad, and substrate or litter on the floor area.  Make no mistake; this is not luxuriously furnished penthouse living.  Like barren battery cages, enriched cages are housed in huge, windowless warehouses, piled on top of each other in tiers, housing hundreds of thousands of hens for the 14 months of their egg laying lives before they die, prematurely and cruelly.
Like battery cages, enriched battery cages are wire structures with sloping mesh floors.  They house up to 80 birds per cage who compete for the ‘furnishings’ as well as the limited space.
Media reports have consistently, and erroneously, described enriched cages as affording individual hens 116 square inches (750cm2) of space.  This is 3 in.2 smaller than a legal size sheet of paper.  However, once the furnishings have been accounted for, they give a mere 93 square inches (600cm2) per hen, or 3 in.2 less than an open standard egg carton.  This is only 8 square inches (50cm2) larger than a 67 square inch (432 cm2) battery cage.  
Wasted Resources, Wasted Lives:  The cost of the ban
A public that fails to become conscious of the suffering that is inflicted on all egg laying hens, including those who are uncaged in free range, barn, organic and back yard situations, becomes a slave to the persuasive advertising power of the egg industry that sells the myth of the humane egg.   Such myths are used to justify the plundering of vast amounts of money into welfare measures.  Irish producers were given an aid package of €16 million; the significantly larger egg industry in the UK saw producers invest £400 million in complying with the new regulations. This does not include the resources that have been invested in decades of campaigning on the single issue of battery reared hens, only to have battery cages replaced by cages that offer little or nothing of meaningful significance to the hens confined in them.  
After the ‘Ban’
Several reports emanating from the EU demonstrate that prior to the ban the public indicated that of all forms of exploitation of other animals for food, the harm caused to egg laying hens caused them most concern.   The myth of the humane egg has since served to salve public conscience and has caused a net increase in the exploitation of the very hens who the public claimed to be most concerned about.  
Six months after the Directive 47 million of the 330 million hens in Europe were still in barren battery cages.  
Approximately half of Europe’s hens, 155 million, remain confined in ‘enriched’ battery cages.  
There is no ban on the import or consumption of eggs from conventional battery cages in other countries.  Battery eggs are still consumed in the EU in unshelled form and in imported processed foods.  
Egg sales in Ireland increased by 7% since the ban, with an 11% increase in consumers buying eggs on a weekly basis.  Some of this growth is said to be attributable to the purchase of larger value packs of eggs that are produced by caged hens, and to the perception of eggs as a ‘nutritious, versatile and convenient food’, an image that is portrayed by nutritionists, the egg industry and the media alike.  No doubt the conscience of the public has been assuaged by the notion that the hens who lay the value pack eggs are living in enriched, furnished luxury.
Hens’ Rights?
The reality for hens in enriched battery cages is that they will never feel the grass beneath their feet or taste its sweet freshness.  Despite the extra head room they still cannot stretch to their full height, nor can they fully open or flap their wings, or engage in any of their instinctual, normal behaviours.  A caged hen will never see daylight prior to the day of her slaughter.  Her natural inclination to walk, run and fly is continually thwarted.  Her boundaries are continually violated by her cage mates.  What hens need is not enriched cages; they need freedom.  The extant situation in Europe that makes enriched cages standard practice is not freedom.  It is a travesty of the word freedom and it is a tragedy for any hen.
I first met Joy on 25th July 2012 on the day I rescued her from an enriched battery cage.    
The slaughterhouse truck waited while we took as many hens as we could away from the certainty of a cruel and premature death. The slaughterhouse staff waited beside the truck wearing protective gloves, presumably to prevent injury from the nails of the terrified hens. The cages on the slaughterhouse truck were barely high enough for hens to sit in and it appeared impossible that they could be placed in them without serious injury. 
Joy was brought to me carried upside down by her legs, along with four or five other hens in each human hand and roughly thrown into boxes.  Subsequent x-rays revealed that some of them had broken wings, legs, toes and hips; one had bone cancer.  The pain of being carried by their broken bones must have been intolerable.  Yet none of them made a sound.  When they were placed into the boxes they were visibly weak and unable to steady themselves. 
I was granted permission to go into the building that housed their cages where I tried to lift them more gently. They were very frightened, some so frightened that they ran from me as I tried to take them from their cages to safety. Their escape from my hands and from the safety that Eden would have offered into the certainty of the horror of the slaughterhouse will forever haunt me.
The ‘enriched cages’ had nothing by way of enrichment for sentient, intelligent, gregarious beings like Joy.  The hens were imprisoned with a minimal amount of space; the artificial light did little to relieve the darkness, and the air was pungent with ammonia.  The sound of their frustration was intolerably loud.  
I witnessed them laying eggs as they awaited their deaths, and I saw their eggs, their property, carried away on a conveyor belt, extracting the life from them. Some were already dead in their cages, their miserable lives mercifully over. 
Joy and her friends were extremely stressed on their journey home. Upon arrival at Eden we could see that many of them were seriously ill. A large number of them had extremely inflamed and swollen bodies, obviously stressed to the limit by the human demand for eggs. One hen was barely able to walk, her legs unable to keep her body upright because they were forced so wide apart from the swelling in her abdomen; when she attempted to waddle, penguin like, to eat or drink, her body dragged on the ground.  Some had prolapsed from the effort of laying eggs.  Some died of egg peritonitis.  
Joy, like the others, was exceptionally light, with a mere covering of skin and feathers over her sharply protruding keel or breast bone.   She had ammonia scalds on her skin.  
Yet, beneath her skeletal, delicate frame lay a proud spirit of immense strength, resilience, and courage.  Her inner self had retained something precious and magnificent that not even the cruelest human exploitation could squash.  Joy’s demeanour during her first days at Eden speaks not of someone accepting of charity, but of someone reclaiming what is hers by right. 
 As I watched her first glimpse of daylight, her first feel of grass beneath her feet, her first experience of the freedom to open her wings, walk, run, and fly, her first dust-bath and the first time she experienced the warmth of the sun’s rays on her outstretched wings, I knew in my heart that she was in a world that belonged to her just as much as it belongs to you or I; a world that had been robbed from her and that many of her rescued comrades were now too ill to enjoy.
They huddled closely together under their new home, startling at any new movement or noise.  One or two ventured out from the safety of the house and explored their new surroundings.  One little hen used to wander off on her own, wading through the long grass, exploring the territory a good distance from the house, constantly chattering and singing a high-pitched soliloquy.  This was Joy.
She has been a complete joy to be with since she came to live at Eden.  It is delightful to open the door of her house every morning and witness her energy and enthusiasm as she greets the day.  When we go outside to her sanctuary she half runs, half flies, with her head outstretched, to greet us.  She is very vocal, and always busy.  She reluctantly goes to bed at night, having relished every minute of daylight, and she hops onto her perch for the night, still chattering and singing that high pitched song.  We don’t need science or animal ethology to tell us that her life is precious to her.  A child could tell you, simply by looking and listening, that Joy’s name was well chosen, for her subjective experience and for the joy she has brought to the lives of all of us at Eden.