It is remarkable how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances: soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests; harsh or grating sounds while threatening or attacking an enemy…Birds so frequently respond to events in tones such as we might use that we suspect their emotions are similar to our own. From the book, “Minds of birds”.
The lives of battery hens has been the subject of much media attention over many years. This has raised public concern and created interest in so called more “humane” exploitation (“free range”).
Many countries have banned the practice of battery cages but in Australia there are many millions still confined in tiny battery cages. These cages are so small that each bird has less than an area the size of an A4 page to move around in. In these crowded egg factories, de-beaking or beak trimming using hot iron or laser is common practice, done while the bird is fully conscious. This is deemed essential by the operators as the birds in such unnaturally confined conditions are likely to cannibalize each other. Read more about the issues of battery hens here.
Free range eggs
Free range eggs represent about 20% of the Australian market. Many buy these eggs believing that this is an ethical way to consume eggs. Given the poor unclear definition of free range in Australia, the reality is quite different to the image sold to us.
As with any business, profit is a top priority and that means working out ways to cut costs. One way this is done is to fit as many birds in to a small space as is allowed. Today, free range chickens are raised in sheds of up to 120,000 chickens, with many never finding their way to the outside. De-beaking is still allowed and even required in some cases since the birds are still in very close confinement so are at risk of feather picking and cannibalizing each other in the unnaturally crowded conditions. To learn more about the problems with free range click here.
Hens can naturally live up to 10 years, but in the egg industry, from as young as 18 months, when their egg production slows, hens in all commercial egg farms (including free range) are packed into transport crates and trucked to slaughter. With this and the high demand for eggs and the need to be profitable there is a constant demand for new hens. Read more about the related breeding operations operations below.
Breeding of hens for commercial egg operations (including free range)
In the hen breeding facilities, 50% of the hatchlings will be male and due to selective breeding for their egg laying, these males are of no financial use and are considered waste product. These male chicks are either gassed to death or taken on a production line and dropped into a macerator where they are ground up alive. What is not well known to the general public is that whether free range, organically certified or RSPCA approved, all male chicks in the egg industry are disposed of as waste through suffocation or maceration. Read more about maceration here.
Some people believe that if they have backyard chickens they can avoid the ethical dilemmas and continue to eat eggs. On the surface, this appears to make sense, in the short term, particularly if the hens are rescued from slaughter. It is though important to understand there are still major ethical considerations and concerns.
Firstly, backyard chickens must come from somewhere. If they come from a breeding program/pet shop, then the significant ethical concerns with supporting breeding facilities, will equally apply. Breeders suffocate or macerate all male chicks shortly after hatching. Read more about male chick disposal here.
Furthermore, whether the hens are rescued from slaughter or from a breeder, considerations must be given to the reality that the hens will stop laying eggs as they get older. Ethically, it is not justifiable to dispose of the hens at this point as they will still have several years of their natural life (around 10 years) left. In order to keep up egg supply in this system, new hens will need to regularly introduced and so eventually there will come a point when there is no more room for new hens and so the egg supply ceases. It is important to note here that we don’t need to eat egg and that hens rescued from exploitation love nothing more than eating their own boiled eggs (including the shell). This is the perfect way to replenish the nutrients they expend to lay the eggs. Finally when you choose to eat the eggs of our backyard chickens you perpetuate the myth that the consumption of eggs is a sustainable ethical food choice. As it is, the facts above suggest there is no genuinely ethical and sustainable way to consume eggs.