Barren, Cramped Battery Cages
What consumers can do for America's egg-laying hens
In the dark barns where America’s egg-laying hens are confined in cages, birds are packed together so tightly they can’t even spread their wings. The space reserved for each is less than a sheet of paper. Crammed wing to wing, the birds are nearly immobilized their entire lives. Their feet sometimes get stuck in the metal floor or their heads between bars so that they’re maimed or trampled to death, or trapped to die of dehydration. They cannot nest, forage, perch or dust bathe, all natural behaviors necessary for their welfare.
Hens are intelligent, highly social animals with a communication system that includes dozens of different vocalizations. But their social structure breaks down in battery cages, says animal scientist Dr. Michael Baxter. “Hens appear to be in a chronic state of social stress, perpetually trying to get away from their cage mates, not able to express dominance relations by means of spacing and not even able to resolve social conflict by means of aggression.
Scientists call battery cages cruel
Researchers say the cruelest thing about battery cages is that they prevent hens from following their instincts when laying eggs. If they were not so tightly confined in such a barren environment, hens would seek out a secluded spot to nest and lay. Since this is impossible in crowded battery cages, hens go through long periods of frustration. They also suffer in other ways. Their feet are intended to wrap around branches in the jungles where they evolved, yet they have no perch to rest on. Their movements are restricted so much that they develop osteoporosis—weak, brittle bones.
Scientific research also shows battery cages pose a danger to food safety, as well. Study after study comparing battery cage operations with cage-free operations shows a higher risk with battery cages of salmonella infections, the leading cause of food poisoning related death in the United States.
HSUS works to eliminate battery cages
The HSUS has led the movement to get hens out of battery cages, most notably with California's Proposition 2 in 2008, an historic ballot measure requiring that all California egg producers make that switch. (Prop 2 was followed by a law that requires all whole eggs sold statewide, regardless of there they come from, to be produced in compliance with Prop 2.)HSUS also led the effort to pass a law in Michigan banning battery cage confinement. And in Ohio—the nation's second-largest egg-producing state—The HSUS succeeded in placing a moratorium on the construction of new cage egg-production facilities.
HSUS undercover investigators have exposed the suffering of hens in battery cages on factory farms run by many of the nation's egg companies, including Cal-Maine Foods, the largest U.S. egg producer, Rose Acre and Rembrandt Foods, the second- and third-largest egg producers, Kreider Farms and Costco supplier Hillandale Farms.
Following these revelations and discussions with The HSUS, leading food companies—like Burger King, Aramark, Sodexo, and Unilever (which produces Hellmann's Mayonnaise and other products)—committed to transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs. And McDonald's, in a watershed moment, announced that all of the eggs it uses will come from cage-free farms—freeing an estimated 8 million hens a year from tight confinement when the policy is fully implemented.
Compass Group, the world's largest food-service provider, is switching to exclusively cage-free for the roughly 400 million eggs it uses a year. Dozens of other major companies are also starting to make the switch: Kraft Foods and General Mills, Denny’s and Starbucks, grocery stores, such as Harris Teeter and Safeway, cruise lines, such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, and hotel chains, such as Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott. Hundreds of university food services, including UCLA, the University of Florida, Harvard and Princeton, are also buying their eggs from cage-free suppliers.
Because of The HSUS, during the last decade battery cages for egg-laying hens have gone from being the unquestioned industry standard to a discredited and increasingly unpopular farming method. And now, since the McDonald’s announcement, it appears the industry is moving toward abandoning cages altogether.
What you can do
- Use the "three Rs" approach to lower your consumption of animal products, especially eggs:
- Reduce the amount of eggs you eat.
- Refine the type of eggs you eat by purchasing eggs from hens not kept in cages. Check our guide to egg carton labels to learn more.
- Replace eggs with egg alternatives or by trying these egg-free recipes.
- Donate to the Farm Animal Protection Campaign.