Egg laying hens are incredibly social creatures with impressive cognitive abilities, who, most importantly, value their lives just as we do our own. Chickens possess the ability to recognise and remember the faces of up to 100 others. Flocks have a complex social structure that is important to them, known as pecking orders. This helps chickens understand their place within their community.

Studies have also found that chickens experience REM sleep, which means they may also dream, just like we do! They adore spending time in the sunshine and keeping themselves clean by dust bathing in patches of dirt.

In Australia, egg laying hens are exploited in 3 main systems; cage, barn-laid and free-range. Despite a plethora of advertising to point consumers towards buying cage-free options, no matter the system, egg laying hens live terribly, in appalling conditions. Naturally, hens can live for as long as 12 years, but sadly in the egg industry hens are killed at 18 months old when their egg production begins to slow and they are no longer considered ‘useful’ to the industry.

Around 16 million layer hens are exploited for their egg production in Australia, 9 million of which are housed inside caged facilities.

Breeding

The cycle begins in parent bird sheds, where roosters and hens are kept to breed, in order to produce more hens who can then lay eggs for consumption. Parent birds live in barren sheds with no access to the outdoors or physical enrichment. Typically there are 10 hens to every rooster in these sheds. 


Parent bird shed. Image: Farm Transparency Project

Roosters can become aggressive towards one another and fight over hens, leading to injuries that are largely left untreated. The way breeder flocks are forced to live has largely eradicated roosters’ usual courtship dance that signals hens to crouch into a sexually receptive position. When hens fail to assume this position roosters often attack and mount them regardless. Most breeder hens have visible sores on their backs from the continual cycle of mating. Eggs are collected from these sheds and taken to be incubated in hatcheries until they hatch.

Once the productivity of a breeder flock begins to decline they are subsequently killed and replaced with a new flock.


Newly hatched chick. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Once hatched, chicks are sorted by sex. Male chicks will never be able to lay eggs and therefore represent no economic value to the industry. Consequently, they are killed within hours of hatching. This is the reality for a staggering 6 billion male chicks every year worldwide. Any females that are sick, deformed or ‘abnormal’ suffer the same fate. Chicks are often killed by the use of a macerator – an industrial machine that essentially grinds chicks up alive.


A macerator, commonly used to grind male chicks up alive as they represent no economic value.

It is also considered legally acceptable to suffocate unwanted chicks with CO2 gas. Investigations have revealed that chicks gasp for air for as long as a minute before they eventually suffocate.

Beak mutilation

In order to reduce pecking behaviour among flocks, female chicks in hatcheries have the end of their beak painfully removed shortly after hatching; this procedure is known as ‘debeaking’. Feather pecking is a harmful behaviour in which hens pull feathers from one another, and  commonly leads to feather damage, huge feather loss, open wounds and even cannibalism.

This behaviour is problematic in all types of egg laying systems, however it is of particular concern in cage-free systems. When hens are housed with thousands of other birds it makes it impossible for them to establish a pecking order, which can lead to frustration and aggression among the flock.


Debeaked hen. Image: PETA.

All methods of debeaking have been found to cause not only acute but chronic pain. Hen beaks are complex functional organs, with a nerve supply and sensory receptors. Despite this there is no state or territory legislation requiring the use of pain relief for this procedure in Australia.

Caged systems

Cage systems deny hens the ability to do most things that come naturally to them, like dust bathe, scratch, stretch their wings, perch or forage. The space allocated to hens in caged systems is less than an A4 piece of paper, and cages are typically around 40cm in height. Hens can be housed in cages with as many as 7 other hens. 


A hen held in a caged egg system on an Australian farm. Image: Dillon Watkin

Cage systems are typically multi-tiered with sloping wire mesh floors designed to facilitate egg collection; hens commonly experience chronic pain due to the development of footpad lesions and other foot conditions from constantly standing on wire floors.

When they are ready to lay an egg, hens in caged facilities are unable to nest in a private space, which is a huge source of stress and frustration for them. This can cause hens to behave aggressively, leading to feather pecking, cannibalism and even death. Those that fall victim to such attacks have nowhere to escape.


Caged hens in Australia. Image: Animal Liberation.

Studies have shown that hens suffer immensely due to being constantly confined in cages. Inability to move freely, constant contact with wire flooring, and absence of perches lead to extreme muscle and bone weakness. Consequently, hens in caged systems suffer the highest number of fractures by the end of their lives out of all egg-laying systems.


Caged layer hens in Spain. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality.

Barn-laid systems

In barn-laid systems hens are not confined to individual cages, however they are housed in large barren sheds where they are never given access to the outdoors. These systems allow for huge stocking densities, which severely impacts upon their ability to move around freely and exercise, and consequently leads to weak and fractured bones.

As previously mentioned, hens have complex social structures among their flocks, known as ‘pecking orders’. Unfortunately, when hens are housed with thousands of other birds they are unable to establish this ‘pecking order’, which often leads to frustration and aggression. Consequently feather pecking, mortality and cannibalism are all hugely problematic in cage-free systems.

Indoor confinement also keeps hens from engaging in behaviours that come naturally to them, impacting greatly upon their quality of life.

Free range systems

In Australia, the definition for free range was formed under Australian Consumer Law in 2016. However, the definition is quite loose, stating only that hens have ‘meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range during daylight hours, during the laying cycle’ are ‘able to roam and forage on the outdoor range’ and are ‘subject to a stocking density of 10,000 hens or less per hectare’ (this is the equivalent of just one square meter for each hen). This rings true for most countries in the western world too.

Despite the common misconception that hens housed in free range systems live much happier lives than those in a cage or barn-laid systems, hens still suffer unimaginably in free range systems. Like in barn-laid systems, hens are unable to establish their social pecking order, causing huge stress and aggression among flocks. Hens in free range systems are still mutilated shortly after hatching by having the ends of their beaks removed, and are still killed at 18 months old when their productivity slows and they are no longer considered ‘economically viable’ or ‘useful’. Furthermore, for every layer hen in a free range system, there was a male chick killed in a macerator or gas chamber.

Health issues of layer hens

Genetic manipulation 

Egg laying hens have been genetically manipulated and selectively bred over many years to lay unnatural amounts of eggs, up to 300 a year. This results in huge stress being placed on hens’ bodies and can lead to a number of debilitating health issues.

Reproductive issues 

Reproductive issues, such as cloacal prolapse, are common in the modern day egg-laying hen. Cloacal prolapse is a condition in which the outer end of the reproductive tacit fails to retract after hens have laid an egg. In some circumstances, hens’ oviducts remain outside of the cloacal opening and cage mates may peck at the prolapse, which can lead to haemorrhaging, infection, cannibalism and death.

Hens that have been selectively bred to lay unnatural amounts of eggs also commonly suffer from tumours in their oviduct.

Osteoporosis

As many as 89% of hens used to supply commercially sold eggs suffer from osteoporosis, a disease which is characterised by weakened bones. Calcium stored in hens’ bones is used in the production of egg shells, leaving hens vulnerable to osteoporosis and subsequently bone fractures and fragility. Osteoporosis alone is not painful, however subsequent bone injuries can be a source of acute and chronic pain.

Slaughter

After 12 months of laying (from approximately 6 months old), hens’ production rates begin to slow and they are killed in order to be replaced by a new flock. These hens are referred to as ‘spent’. Some spent hens are sent to slaughterhouses to be killed, while others are killed on-site at farms.

There are no specific guidelines for killing spent layer hens en masse on farms, which is a cause for grave concern. Eggs Australia suggests a number of methods for killing layer hens, which include maceration, suffocation, asphyxiation with foam, neck dislocation, and electrocution. 

Investigations have revealed the suffering of hens killed on-site at egg farms. Watch the footage and decide for yourself if you think gassing is in any way humane or ethical.

Hens who end up in slaughterhouses are firstly ‘depopulated’ from sheds, and crammed into small crates with many other birds. Hens are often handled roughly by workers and commonly suffer broken bones, as well as many getting their heads, legs and wings caught between the crates and the bars on the trucks.

When they arrive at the slaughterhouse, hens are shackled upside down by their delicate feet and their heads are pulled through an electrified body of water, meant to render them unconscious before their throats are cut. Numerous exposés have revealed poultry commonly lift their heads and miss the stun bath completely, meaning their throats are cut whilst they are fully conscious, with some even reaching the scalding tank when they are still alive. 

Other legally accepted methods of slaughtering hens include neck dislocation and decapitation.

Environmental impacts of eating eggs

Deforestation

The poultry sector requires a huge amount of feed. It was estimated the broiler (meat chicken) and layer hen sectors accounted for a massive 450 million metric tons of feed worldwide in 2018. This feed primary consists of cereals, soybeans and fishmeal.

The production of feed is the largest contributor to the poultry sector’s global warming potential. This is due to the fact that much of the crops grown to feed poultry, especially soy, are grown on newly deforested land, particularly from South-America and South Asia.

Trees play a vital role in capturing GHG emissions like carbon dioxide, stopping them from accumulating in the atmosphere and heating the planet. When trees are cleared to make way for feed cropping, not only is a vital ally in fighting climate change removed, but they also release the CO2 they had stored. Deforestation emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Image CARL DE SOUZA

As much as 75% of soy crops are used to feed livestock, with only a mere 6% turned into products consumed directly by humans. In 2004, the poultry sector accounted for a massive 75% of soybean meal used by the livestock sector. 

Put simply, the consumption of poultry and eggs contributes hugely to the destruction of the world’s forests. The clearing of natural vegetation is devastating to native people, flora and fauna, and has caused huge losses in biodiversity.

Over-exploitation of natural resources

As much as 40% of global fishmeal is said to be used to feed livestock animals, 13% of which is accounted for by the poultry sector. The continual over-exploitation of fisheries poses a huge threat to biodiversity of our oceans. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN estimates that a huge 77% of global fish stocks are either fully exploited or over-exploited.

Overfishing poses a threat not only to target species but also other marine animals, as a massive 40% of marine animals caught from the wild are accounted for by non-target species (also known as by-catch). Whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, sea turtles and albatrosses are among some of the animals killed by fishing vessels as ‘by-catch’.

Fish on the deck of a boat after being pulled from the ocean. Image: PhysOrg
A body of water affected by eutrophication. Image: Conserve Energy Future

Water pollution 

Poultry generate a considerable amount of waste, which must be disposed of. Poultry excrete up to 80% of the nitrogen they consume, and leeching and run-off of poultry waste can contaminate ground and surface water.

Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals like nitrogen. This causes a chain of events including hypoxic environments, oceanic dead zones and consequently the death of further marine animals.

Human impact

Mental health impact on workers 

Workers within the animal industrial complex are extremely vulnerable to suffering mental health implications associated with inflicting repeated acts of violence on animals. It is unnatural for humans to harm animals, and consequently can be psychologically damaging for those acting out systemic violence for work.

Employees in the animal industrial complex have been found to suffer a type of PTSD known as Perpetrator-Induced Traumatic Stress, which relates to the trauma experienced by a person who is consistently exposed to or acting out violence.

Prevalence of intensive farms in marginalised communities

Those who live locally to intensive animal farms are exposed to hazardous materials such as airborne particulate matter and chemicals, both of which can affect the air quality of the surrounding community. Children have been found to develop more symptoms of asthma the closer they live to a factory farm [1][2].

Reduced air quality can also result in less time spent outdoors and inability to bring fresh air into homes, leading to a reduction in quality of life and wellbeing, and increasing mental distress.

Intensive animal farms are disproportionately located within predominately non-white and/or low-income communities. These communities suffer the direct impacts of animal feedlots whilst also having inequitable access to healthcare and support.

To read more about the human implications relating to the animal industrial complex, you can do so here.

Alternatives

For eating

Orgran Easy Egg

Orgran Easy Egg is the perfect alternative to egg for so many recipes! Worried you will miss out on scrambled eggs, quiche, frittata or omelettes if you switch to a kinder diet? Never fear, this product has you covered. Not only is this product a kind choice for our animal friends, it is also gluten, GMO and soy free!

Firm tofu

This may seem a little strange, but trust us, tofu is the perfect alternative to scrambled eggs. Break up some firm tofu in a pan, add your favourite herbs, spices and vegetables and voila, delicious, healthy scrambled tofu packed with protein. Hot tip: if you love an eggy flavour add black salt – the resemblance in taste to chickens’ eggs is out of this world – and all without the cruelty. Win, win.

For baking

Banana

Soft, ripe bananas are an incredible replacement for egg in baking. We recommend using them in pancakes, cakes, and cupcakes.

Orgran No egg

Available in major supermarkets Orgran ‘No egg’ is a quick and easy alternative to eggs in baking. With an equivalent of 66 eggs in a pack, this product is huge bang for your buck! Add it to your next shopping list!

Flaxseed 

When mixed with water, flaxseed can mimic that of an egg in baking. A perfect alternative packed full of omega-3 fatty acids and fibre. Try it in your next batch of kind cupcakes, you will not regret it!

Apple sauce 

Applesauce is a great alternative to egg in baking, largely because of the pectin in applesauce, which acts as a binder just as eggs do. This is the perfect alternative in kind cakes!