What does “cage-free” eggs mean? In the simplest terms, cage-free means exactly what it sounds like: laying hens are never caged. But the simplicity of this label ends there.
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Table Of Contents
- How Most Hens Live: Battery Cages
- What Does Cage-Free Mean?
- What’s Wrong With Cage-Free Eggs?
- Do More Hens Die in Cage-Free Facilities?
- The Bottom Line On Cage-Free Eggs
What does cage-free eggs mean? The term may bring to mind happy chickens roaming free in a rolling green field, their lush feathers glistening in the ample sunlight. Unfortunately, this idyllic image is far from the true conditions for the hens who produce cage-free eggs. In order to make informed decisions as a consumer, you have to—and, I believe, deserve to—know what you’re actually choosing. tweet this
Before diving into the meaning of cage-free eggs, it’s important to acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s almost 8 billion layer hens1 are still kept in battery cages—one of the most intensive forms of confinement in the animal products industry. Crammed together in these small, barren cages, each individual hen is afforded less space than a single sheet of paper—unable to extend their wings or even stand fully upright.2
Denied the ability to engage in natural behaviors such as foraging, wing-flapping, perching, dust bathing, and nesting,3 hens in battery cages experience extreme distress—manifesting in neurotic behavior, feather loss, aggression, and even cannibalism.4 These hens live in constant pain, often suffering from osteoporosis due to the combination of nutrient loss from high egg production and a severe lack of movement.5
Rising public concern over the last four decades regarding the horrific conditions of battery cages has led to increasing demands for alternative systems.6
In 1999, The Council of the European Union set a directive that banned all “barren battery cages” by 2012.7 While media coverage at the time focused on the end of battery cages in the EU, what the directive actually did was replace barren battery cages with “enriched”—meaning furnished—battery cages.
Yes, hens would now be provided more space and given furnishings like perches and laying nests—certainly an improvement over barren cages. However, while reports extolled that hens would now each be afforded 750cm², rather than the 550 cm² in conventional battery cages, they neglected to clarify that—due to the new furnishings—only 600cm² would be usable.
Meaning—in the end—that this revolutionary step forward for the rights of laying hens granted them less than a single playing card of additional space.
The 1999 Council Directive addressed more than an eventual end to barren battery cages in favor of enriched cages—it also introduced a third category, termed “alternative systems.”9 This umbrella term covered various non-cage systems, such as aviaries and barns—including what we commonly refer to as “cage-free eggs.”
In the simplest terms, cage-free means exactly what it sounds like: laying hens are never caged. But the simplicity ends there. As the term “cage-free” primarily defines how hens are not to be housed, the actual conditions under which cage-free hens are housed varies greatly; standards are largely unspecified, unverified and unregulated.10
In the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) only specifies that cage-free eggs “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room or enclosure that allows for unlimited access to food and water and provides the freedom to roam the area during the laying cycle.”11
Cage-free eggs graded by the USDA are subject to on-site inspections twice a year, purely to ensure the hens are not in cages. Additionally, not all cage-free eggs are graded by the USDA, so many cage-free labels do not have any verification at all that the hens they came from were not caged.12
In the European Union, while the term “cage-free” doesn’t seem to be widely used, non-cage systems are required to “not exceed nine laying hens per m² usable area.”13 This affords each hen a little over a square foot of space. There are no such stocking density limits in the United States, among other countries.
The separation between caged and non-cage farming is often completely non-existent: many egg producers have both caged and cage-free facilities on the same property.14 Purchasing cage-free eggs is in no way supporting smaller, independent farmers. That said, there is no denying that almost anything would be an improvement over life in a battery cage. However, as we’ve learned with “enriched” cages, alternative systems aren’t the idyllic environments we may envision.
Cage-free hens are kept indoors, usually in windowless buildings. Each structure may contain thousands to tens of thousands of birds. This extreme overcrowding leaves some cage-free hens without much more room than battery cages, resulting in many of the same mental and physical consequences.15 Additionally, cage-free hens are not spared the cruel “standard practices” of the egg industry as a whole.
All hens are sourced from hatcheries where male chicks are killed upon hatching. The primary method recommended by the European Union’s humane regulations,16 and implemented worldwide, is “maceration“—a euphemistic term for dropping newborn male chicks into a meat grinder while alive. It’s estimated that 3.2 billion male chicks are killed every year.17
Cage-free hens are still subjected to debeaking—a painful mutilation in which a portion of their sensitive beaks are cut or burned off.18 In the few countries where debeaking is banned, hens face increased mortality rates from aggressive pecking brought on by crowded and stressful living conditions.19
The living beings within all animal product industries are viewed as just that—products. Laying hens are no different—everything from their environment to their very genetics are engineered for maximum egg output.20 Artificial lighting is used to constantly manipulate hens’ hormones in order to increase their egg production.21
One of the most cruel practices within the egg industry is what’s referred to as “induced molting.” Farmers remove the hens’ food for weeks, literally starving them.22 The hens lose up to 35% of their body weight, along with their feathers, allowing their reproductive tracts to “refresh” so they can pump out another round of eggs.23
They are also subjected to more extreme forms of light manipulation, at times enduring a week of constant light.24 There is nothing within the cage-free label that prohibits this barbaric practice. While forced molting is banned in some countries, this simply means the hens are slaughtered after they are no longer profitable—a fate which awaits every layer hen.25
No matter the label, housing conditions or country, all layer hens are killed when their egg production declines—typically when they are 70–80 weeks old.26 No longer able to turn a profit, they are sent to their deaths—still mere babies themselves.
In caged systems, hens can be more effectively separated from their waste. In cage-free systems, the ammonia from their waste can cause dangerous conditions for the hens, workers, and the public.27 A study looking into the sources of particulate pollution found the poultry industry to be the greatest single contributor.28
The ammonia in poultry litter “combines with other pollutants—sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide…to produce a secondary source of additional deadly PM 2.5.”29—meaning fine particulate matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated30 that this kind of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) “is responsible for over 90% of air pollution-related health damages.”31
A large-scale study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) research project found the mortality rate (meaning death rate) in non-cage systems to be 2.5 times higher than in battery cage systems.32 This finding was far from isolated to one study or country.33
The primary causes of increased mortality in non-cage systems include: injurious pecking, cannibalism, and disease transference.34 These very issues are a large part of why battery cages were invented in the first place—confining hens in cages makes it much easier to manage behavioral issues and disease outbreaks.35
Pointing to the housing system as the reason for more deaths, though, is an oversimplification of what is a very complex issue. A meta-analysis of data from 29 sources covering commercial farms in 16 countries indicates a possible decline in mortality rates within non-cage systems in more recent years.36 The authors argue that this decline will continue as producers become more familiar with managing non-cage systems, and as more “appropriate” hen breeds are created and utilized.37 They also emphasize the importance of debeaking hens to reduce injurious and cannibalistic behavior.38
At first glance, this decline in mortality rates in non-cage systems may sound like a promising trend. Yet, rather than pointing to reasons for hope, the proposed causes of the decline actually highlight a stark reality: within the animal products industries, the solutions are the problems. tweet this When hens injure and kill one another due to their breeding and living conditions—both of which have been imposed upon them—the solution is to cut off their beaks and alter their breeding.
Ian J.H. Duncan, Professor Emeritus and Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, Canada, illustrates this predicament, saying:
“If [producers] do not trim beaks, then feather pecking and cannibalism may cause enormous suffering. If they do trim beaks by conventional methods, the birds will suffer from acute and chronic pain… Chopping off parts of young animals in order to prevent future welfare problems is a very crude solution.”39— Ian J.H. Duncan, “Welfare Problems of Poultry,” in The Well-Being of Farm Animals
Duncan proposes instead that, given “feather pecking has hereditary characteristics….It therefore seems likely that the long-term solution to this problem will be a genetic one…”40 While certainly less objectionable than debeaking on a visceral level, genetic manipulation of sentient beings to serve our purposes is not only extremely ethically problematic, but—once again—what got us into this position in the first place.
The animal products industries have honed these beings at a genetic level to meet specific demands and performance. Laying hens have traditionally been bred for producing as many eggs as possible in a caged environment.41 Place them into a cage-free environment and mortality skyrockets. So, the solution to the problems inadvertently created by genetic manipulation is to further manipulate their genes.42
Every time our breeding, confinement, mutilation and slaughter of non-human animals invariably cause ethical, environmental and health problems, we strive to solve them with different variations of breeding, confinement, mutilation and slaughter. We continue this cycle over and over again—addressing problems of our own creation with solutions that will eventually become our next problem—rather than stepping back and questioning our use of animals in the first place.
Even if less hens die in one housing system than another, is that truly any indicator of their quality of life? As the authors of the meta analysis themselves poignantly state:
There are mountains of research and governmental regulations you can read through regarding the welfare of laying hens around the world. What I’ve covered just touches the surface. But in the end, while I believe it’s vital to know the truth behind humane claims, it’s our use of animals in and of itself that’s inhumane. No matter what label we give it.
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— Emily Moran Barwick