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Eggs: The Real Deal

It took me a long time to write this post. I wanted to shed some light on the issues around farmed chickens, but found myself completely overwhelmed. Chickens are the most intensively farmed land animal on earth; over 50 BILLION of them are reared annually for their meat or eggs, and the suffering they endure left me at a loss with where to start.


So, since chickens reared for meat and chickens used to lay eggs are entirely separate lines of business, I'll break it down, and this post will explore the experience of egg-laying chickens, referred to from now on as hens.


In 2022 an estimated 34.6 million eggs were consumed in the UK…each day. National consumption has grown by an average of 260 million eggs per year since 2006, so it's probably unsurprising to learn that over time, selective breeding has been employed in order to up production and meet this continually-rising demand. The Red Jungle Fowl, wild ancestor of the domesticated chicken, lays just 10 -15 eggs per year during a short, specific breeding season, but the extent to which the hens providing for today’s market have been carefully bred, along with the helpful aids of high protein feed and subjection to unnatural lighting, has them laying more than 300 eggs per year.


Here's how it works:


  • Life begins in an incubator – chicks hatch from their shells far away from their mothers.

  • Within their first 24 hours of life, fluffy and cheeping, the chicks are bundled onto a conveyor belt where they’re sorted by sex. The boys serve no purpose so they, along with any sickly girls, are killed, generally by gassing to death. Around 40 million day-old chicks are killed this way in the UK each year. Outside of the UK, they go into a grinder. Alive. The grinder method is also an option here in the UK, it’s just apparently not the preferred one anymore.

  • The remaining females will then be debeaked – that is, she'll have the end of her beak cut off, so when she’s bored and frustrated (for the rest of her life) and thus starts displaying unnatural behaviours, her naturally sharp beak can’t inflict as much damage on her fellow layers.

  • From 16 weeks old, females are mature enough to be set to work as egg-layers. In 2022 there were approximately 38 million egg-laying hens in the UK, 28% caged, 65% free-range, and 7% barn.


Caged Hens


Caged hens may just face the worst fate of any farmed creatures. They’re popped into cages just a few months into their lives…after which they’ll never come out. Battery cages, where the space allowance for each hen is less than an A4 sheet of paper, were banned in the EU in 2012, though they're still used throughout most of the rest of the world…think tens of thousands of birds crammed into vast sheds. Worth considering if you eat egg-containing products from outside Europe.


‘Enriched cages’, which were brought in to replace battery cages, however, are hardly worth celebrating. The size allocated for each bird was increased from an A4 sheet of paper by the size of a postcard. Enriched cages contain between 40 - 80 birds, too densely packed to even stretch their wings.


Naturally, having such a number of living beings in a confined space, bored and frustrated, creates behavioural problems. Chickens are highly intelligent creatures with rules of social hierarchy and advanced communication skills. In a natural environment they will scratch in the dirt, dust-bathe, groom and preen, and at times flutter up to perches above the ground in order to feel safe. In cages, these habits are restricted. Bored, dominant birds will pick on their weaker cage-mates, and many hens suffer painful wounds and baldness where their feathers have been pecked out. Though the cages have perches, (on which legislation stipulates there must be a measly minimum of 15cm of space per hen), these are often low to the base of the cage, not high enough for hens to escape their aggressors. Technically, there are other enrichments available too, but with so many hens per cage, only the most dominant will have access to these. Ultimately, no creature in a cage can run, fly, or even scratch at the dirt beneath their feet, when the ‘floor’ is an open wire mesh, covered in faeces and urine.


The cages themselves are often stacked high on top of one other, and in such cramped, highly populated environments the list of health issues these birds are prone to are too numerous to list here. Needless to say, disease and infection are rife. Multiple investigations by various organisations have found dead birds rotting in their cages, often being eaten by their former cage-mates. Egg-laying hens are also frequently calcium deficient, due to the number of eggs they’ve been bred to produce, and how much calcium their bodies require to create the shells for these eggs. This deficiency, combined with the lack of opportunity to exercise and strengthen their bodies, means fragile and broken bones are commonplace.


Here's a visual of some hens living in an Enriched Cage:




Free Range


If you've read this far and you're thinking "wow, how horrible, I'm so glad I only buy free range", sorry - but I'm about to pop that bubble. Free range, I'm afraid, is quite often a total sham.


To qualify as free range, hens don't have to be running around living their best lives - they simply 'must have direct access' to outside space. Defra stipulates that the hens 'should be encouraged to use the outdoor area through easily and directly accessible 'popholes' from the building'. (Pophole = little opening). So far so good, but here's the snag - welfare legislation stipulates that a mere 'total opening of 2m must be available per group of 1,000 hens'. Once again, the number of hens per shed and the social hierarchy within any flock will mean that dominant hens will prevent weaker individuals from ever using these popholes to access outside space.


The number of consumers buying free range eggs has risen dramatically in recent years, which in a way is pretty sad. It suggests that people are concerned for hen welfare and believe they're making a more ethical choice with their purchase, however this is very often a case of those people being massively misled.


This is a free range egg farm according to Happy Eggs' marketing team:





And this is a free range, Happy Eggs farm according to an actual photo of it:




This is an image taken during an undercover investigation by Peta in 2021. These hens class as free range, as technically they have access to outside space, though it's clear to see how, realistically, many individuals simply wouldn't be able to reach that space.



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Caged or free-range, at around 18 months old a hen's production decreases, and considered ‘spent’, she's sent to slaughter. Her natural lifespan would be 5-8 years.



Eggs, similarly to dairy, are a product that many consider naturally created, and therefore harmless to those producing them. This idea is perpetuated by an industry who keep the reality of their trade strategically concealed. Eggs, however, are not products obtained without victims. From the millions of male chicks killed at just a few hours old, to the crowded, disease-ridden confinement endured by their sisters, the egg industry is one of immense suffering and young lives cut unnaturally short.


Despite something of a cartoonish reputation for being stupid, chickens are actually extremely intelligent creatures with fun social habits, extensive communication skills, and the ability to empathise. Many also love a cuddle! Please consider leaving eggs off your plate. There are so many delicious foods in the world...we could easily end this cruelty.

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