During our childhoods, many of us enjoyed the story of Old MacDonald’s farm where happy animals spent their days running around the barnyard. And although this mythical image of farming persists, little could be further from the truth for several million hens in this country. Knowing that laying hens are likely the most abused animals in agribusiness may indeed change the way you choose your eggs. It did for us at Bon Appétit Management Company.
Approximately 300 million laying hens produced 76.2 billion eggs in the United States during 2004. This translates into each hen laying an annual average of 260 eggs each, which is almost ten times as many as their ancestors. Most eggs in the United States come from birds who are confined in battery cages and the dismal welfare of these hens cannot be ignored.
About 98 percent of hens are strictly confined in battery cages throughout their entire lifetimes. In these conditions, the birds are so crowded together that each bird lives in a space smaller than a sheet of letter-sized paper. That’s not even enough room for the hen to stand up straight, let alone spread her wings. Most hens confined in these cages also have their beaks cut-off so that they don’t hurt one another in such crowded spaces.
Many natural behaviors of chickens are incredibly restricted when they are raised in battery cages. For example, they are forced to lay eggs on a metal-barred floor among other birds. Research shows that the lack of nesting opportunity is the most significant source of frustration for these hens. Since the nest provides necessary protection during egg-laying, the inability to nest also increases the hens’ risk for uterine prolapse, a condition that causes the uterus to be pushed outside of the body. Forced molting practices used to induce higher egg production further exacerbates this condition.
Another natural tendency for hens is dustbathing, which helps regulate their temperatures and keep their feathers in good condition. When confined in battery cages, these chickens will still attempt to dustbathe by rubbing against the wire bars of the cage, which causes feather damage. Feather loss and damage also result from caged hens pecking each other due to their extremely close confinement.
Caged hens also demonstrate very poor bone health and foot problems. Due to their lack of exposure to sunlight, they are unable to produce vitamin D, which is essential for calcium absorption to build strong bones. Although they are given vitamin D supplements, it’s not enough to compensate for all the calcium that goes into producing the shells of the eggs. Approximately 89 percent of caged hens develop osteoporosis. Additionally, because they are forced to walk on metal-barred floors and unable to perch (their natural tendency), they develop crooked toes and other foot problems due to tendon tension.
Environment and Health
The extremely crowded conditions of the battery cages create an environment in which the health of these birds is significantly compromised and diseases are easily transferred. This may necessitate an increased use of antibiotics, which pose a variety of human health problems including a higher risk of developing antibiotic resistance.
In addition, managing the excessive waste produced by the animals is a tremendous task as it is in CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations. Many times the animal waste is improperly processed and this runoff can pollute nearby lakes, streams and even ultimately our oceans. In addition to environmental damage, the extra waste from egg farms can pose some human health risks. For example, high ammonia levels from the egg farms may cause lung problems for the farm workers.
Confining hens in battery cages is banned in several countries, including Germany , Austria and Switzerland , and the entire European Union is currently phasing out conventional battery cages all together by 2012. Unfortunately, there are currently no laws in the United States that regulate the treatment of laying hens.
1. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2005. Chickens and Eggs: 2004 Summary. Published February 2005.
2. Arshad M. 1999. An ecological study of Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus spadiceus) in agricultural areas. Universiti Putri Malasia.
3. United Egg Producers. 2005. United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks, 2005 Edition
4. Duncan IJH. 2001. The pros and cons of cages. World’s Poultry Science Journal 57:385.
5. Clubb S. 2001. Stop the practice of starving birds for egg production. Association of Avian Veterinarians Newsletter, June-August.
6. van Liere D and Bokma S. 1987. Shorter feather maintenance as a function of dust-bathing in laying hens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 18:197-204.
7. Webster AB. 2004. Welfare implications of avian osteoporosis. Poultry Science 83:184-92.
8. Merck Veterinary Manual Online, 8th Edition. Crooked toes. 2003.
Egg Carton Labels
The vast number of consumer labels affixed to egg cartons can leave a shopper feeling as dazed and confused as a laying hen trapped in a battery cage. One carton may label its eggs “Natural.” Another carton may call them “Free Range,” while yet another may claim its eggs are “Certified Organic.” How are thoughtful consumers supposed to know what these labels and claims really mean?
The truth is that the majority of egg labels have little relevance to animal welfare or, if they do, they have no official standards nor any mechanism to enforce them. Only three labels listed below are programs with official, audited guidelines, but even those vary widely in terms of animal welfare. Those three are marked with an asterisk (*).
Certified Organic*: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free-range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation may be permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Certified Humane*: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Free-Roaming: Also known as “free-range,” the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in “free-roaming” egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.
United Egg Producers Certified*: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens may be confined in restrictive, barren cages and limiting their ability to perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
Natural: Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture any food that contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more than minimally processed,” may be considered “natural.”
Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
Omega-3 Enriched: Eggs carrying this label have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than other eggs. This is achieved by mixing flaxseed, a grain high in omega-3s, into the hen’s feed.
The Humane Society of the United States. A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare. March 2007.
Bon Appétit’s Eggs Commitment
Bon Appétit was the first restaurant company to make a national commitment to cage-free eggs. We even took it a step further specifying that all of our shell eggs are Certified Humane. In order to qualify for the Certified Humane label, an egg farm must meet the animal welfare standards of an independent auditing organization called Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). Battery cages are not permitted and the housing facilities must include areas for hens to nest, dust bathe, scatch and perch.
For our commitment, we were awarded the Humane Society of the United States’ Award for Excellence in Food Service. In 2006 we purchased over eight million Certified Humane eggs. For us, it’s simply the right thing to do.