hen inside cage in egg factory farm

9 Things You Don’t Know About the Egg Industry

Neatly packed cartons of eggs are a routine sight on grocery store shelves, but most shoppers don’t know how hens live and die for a morning omelet. Millions of eggs are consumed every year, but how are they produced?

Egg production is a huge industry worldwide, with over 300 million hens living on factory farms in the US alone. These hens are confined on farms in small cages for their entire lives to meet the high consumer demand for eggs–in North America, each person consumes an average of 240 eggs per year, and in Europe, 250 eggs. Not only are eggs consumed directly, but they are also ingredients in many other products.

But at what cost? And who pays for it?

Here are some facts about the hidden costs of egg production:

1. A hen spends her entire life crowded into a small cage and never sees the light of day.

Hens crammed in cages inside a factory farm

Factory farms have windowless sheds that hold from tens of thousands to more than a hundred thousand hens in rows and rows of cages stacked on top of each other. Each bare wire cage, called a battery cage, confines 4-10 hens in a space only a few feet wide.

An individual hen typically has only an 8 by 8 inch square space, barely bigger than the hen’s body, in which she lives her entire life. This space is where she eats, drinks, urinates and defecates, and sleeps. She will never be able to spread her wings, perch, forage for food, or perform any natural activities. Until the day she’s sent to be slaughtered, she won’t breathe fresh air or experience sunlight.

2. A hen is only valuable to the egg industry because she can produce eggs, but what happens to a male chick who can’t lay eggs?

Male chick discarded by the egg industry

The egg industry has selectively bred hens to produce unnaturally high numbers of eggs throughout their lives. To replenish the numbers of hens who die and replace those who are old and less productive, chicks are hatched from incubators in hatcheries. Incubated eggs produce both male and female chicks, but the males are considered waste products by the industry because they can’t lay eggs.

The egg industry kills male chicks within their first hours of life by grinding them up alive or suffocating them. Sometimes they’re just thrown into garbage cans and left to die slowly. Around 260 million male chicks are killed every year in the US as egg industry waste–which means more than 300,000 chicks die by these inhumane methods every hour.

3. A hen will develop painful foot problems from living on wire floors.

hens are forced to stand on wire cages their entire lives

Factory farms are designed to cut costs and maximize production, so hens are kept on wire flooring with large openings so waste can drop through to trays below. This saves the expense and effort of cleaning cages. A hen who lives her entire life in a cage experiences a number of debilitating foot conditions, including overgrown claws that become entrapped, injured, or grow around the wire and further constrain the hen’s movement.

The floors of cages are often sloped, which puts pressure on a hen’s footpads and may also result in open wounds and ulcers on the hen’s feet.

4. Cages are designed for 3 to 6 hens, but farmers often crowd more into cages.

chicken beak mutilation

The extreme crowding in cages causes significant behavioral issues, like aggression and pecking, and ongoing frustration in hens. To deal with these issues, the egg industry routinely removes over one-quarter of a hen’s sensitive beak, which she relies on for sensation and foraging. Beak amputations are performed without pain killers in young female chicks shortly after they’ve hatched.

These amputations have long-term consequences—a hen may show less activity and interest in food, grow more slowly, and she may develop nerve growths at the end of her beak called neuromas that cause chronic pain.

5. Living with tens of thousands of other hens on a farm has its consequences.

caged hens with feathers missing

Hens caged in crowded, unsanitary conditions experience constant stress that weakens their immune systems. This creates an environment ideal for the transmission of infectious diseases. Bacterial and viral infections can spread rapidly through factory farms, causing many to fall ill and die.

Common diseases that affect egg-laying hens include E. coli and Salmonella infections, fowl cholera, infectious coryza, influenza (bird flu), and infectious bronchitis, but these are just a few of many pathogens that proliferate in the stressful, overcrowded conditions of the egg industry.

6. Hens are exposed to noxious gasses from waste buildup.

dead hen on the ground inside a factory farm

On factory farms, hens are housed in 328-foot-long sheds, in rows and rows of stacked cages. All of those hens produce a lot of waste, which never gets cleaned. Instead, the waste piles up on the floors of sheds and cakes the bottoms of cages, resulting in filthy living conditions.

When a hen is exposed to high levels of ammonia, a toxic gas that builds up due to decomposing waste, she may develop damage in her eyes or burns in her respiratory tract. This predisposes her to develop respiratory diseases and infections. She may also lose her appetite and lose weight, becoming weaker and more fragile in environments with heavy ammonia contamination.

7. Disease and death are everyday occurrences.

dead hen on bottom of cage in factory farm

Many hens are weakened as the result of genetic selection, which forces them to produce unnaturally high numbers of eggs, as well as stressful conditions, immune suppression, and infectious diseases. Large numbers of hens die in cages, and when they do, their bodies are left to decompose among still-living hens.
Those who manage to survive live for only about 18 months—a fraction of their 8 to 10 year lifespan—before their egg production slows. Once this happens, hens are sent to be slaughtered.

8. Genetic selection leads to more disease and suffering.

dead egg-bound hen in bottom of cage in factory farm

A hen on a factory farm lays eggs at an unnatural pace, and this takes a toll on her body. To increase her productivity, the farmer will expose her to 16 hours of light, which causes her to lay even more eggs. She will undergo forced molting to increase her egg production, where she’s starved for up to two weeks to reset her laying cycle. She may experience forced molting up to three times in her lifetime. Common diseases in hens brought on by breeding and high egg production include osteoporosis, as a hen’s calcium is depleted, fragile bones, lameness, paralysis, fatty liver syndrome, and egg-binding. In egg-bound hens, an egg has become stuck and cannot be passed, resulting in infections and systemic disease. Hens are denied any veterinary care for these conditions.

9. The reward for a life of egg production is certain death.

pile of dead hens outside factory farm

Hens on factory farms live miserable, abnormally shortened lives that ultimately end up at the slaughterhouse. Those who die in cages are often left to rot in the cage or thrown away in dumpsters.
Hens in the egg industry suffer so much just for a cake or a scrambled egg. Each egg requires a hen confined in a cage and suffering for 30 hours.

What You Can Do

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many delicious ways to replace eggs in your diet, and you can help hens by leaving eggs off your plate. You can make a significant difference for animals by saying no to animal products and choosing a plant-based diet instead.

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