The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages. On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life. Unable even to spread their wings, caged laying hens are among the most intensively confined animals in agribusiness.
Caged hens also suffer from the denial of many natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dustbathing, all important for hen welfare. Numerous scientists and other experts (PDF) have spoken clearly about the animal welfare problems with battery cages. One such scientist, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Konrad Lorenz, said:
"The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act. For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover."
Because of public opposition to battery cage confinement, many egg producers are switching to cage-free systems. These systems generally offer hens a significantly improved level of animal welfare than do battery cage systems, though the mere absence of cages sometime isn’t enough to ensure high welfare.
Unlike battery hens, cage-free hens are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests, vital natural behaviors denied to hens confined in cages. Most cage-free hens live in very large flocks that can consist of many thousands of hens who never go outside. The vast majority of cage-free hens live on farms that are 3rd-party audited by certification programs that mandate perching and dust-bathing areas. These advantages are very significant to the animals involved.
Dr. Michael Appleby, one of the world's leading poultry welfare experts, writes:
"Battery cages present inherent animal welfare problems, most notably by their small size and barren conditions. Hens are unable to engage in many of their natural behaviors and endure high levels of stress and frustration. Cage-free egg production, while not perfect, does not entail such inherent animal welfare disadvantages and is a very good step in the right direction for the egg industry."
Cage-free hens are spared several severe cruelties that are inherent to battery cage systems. But it would nevertheless be a mistake to consider cage-free facilities to necessarily be "cruelty-free." Here are some of the more typical sources of animal suffering associated with both types of egg production:
- Both systems typically buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.
- Both cage and cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.
- Both cage and cage-free hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.
- While the vast majority of the battery and cage-free egg industry no longer uses starvation to force molt the birds, there are battery and cage-free producers alike who still use this practice.
So, while cage-free does not necessarily mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have significantly better lives than those confined in battery cages. The ability to lay their eggs in nests, run and spread their wings are tangible benefits that shouldn't be underestimated.