Don't Believe What's Printed on Egg Cartons

CC BY 2.0. James Royal-Lawson

A new investigative report from Viva! reveals that conditions for laying hens are as hellish and squalid as ever, even if they're labelled free-range.

Egg consumption has been rising over the past two decades. For the very reasons that older generations tended to minimize egg consumption – cholesterol and saturated fat – younger people are now seeking them out as nutrient-rich whole foods that offer a quick hit of protein. Fifty billion eggs are laid annually in the United States, and 12.2 billion are eaten each year in the United Kingdom.

There is a problem with these numbers, however, when you start to analyze them more closely. The production of so many eggs requires industrial-scale farming that is inherently cruel to the animals. The egg industry has resorted to densely packed conditions for birds and drastically shortened lifespans in order to churn out the millions of eggs that are consumed daily.

In a report recently published by Viva!, a British animal rights charity that campaigns for veganism, laying hens are described as “possibly the most abused animal on earth.” The report, which includes a 70-page annotated document and film footage, is the result of a year-long investigation into several major egg companies in the UK, both conventional and ‘free-range.’

Viva! found that there’s not much difference between the two labels. No matter what’s printed on an egg carton in the store, it’s pretty much guaranteed to come from hens who are living hellish, abused lives.

Viva!’s report delves deeply into the life cycle of industrial egg-layers, starting with the separation of newborn chicks from their mothers. This interrupts a very important bonding experience that has lasting repercussions for hens, which are communal, social animals. When they spend time with their mother (or foster mother), they develop less aggressive behaviors, such as feather-pecking, but the tradeoff is lower egg production, which obviously the industry does not like.

Next follows the massacre of male chicks, which are either crushed alive mechanically or gassed. Apparently, dead bodies are often used for reptile food in the pet trade. Sometimes they’re simply discarded outdoors en masse, as happened a few weeks ago. Viva! writes:

“In the egg industry, females are allowed to live and males are not. Prior to the development of modern ‘broiler meat’ breeds, most male chickens were slaughtered for meat, whereas females would be kept for egg production. Today however, chickens are either selectively bred to reach adult weight at just six weeks so they can be turned into meat, or to be as skinny as possible to save space and to channel all energy into laying eggs. This means that the egg industry’s male baby chicks are considered useless as they cannot lay eggs or grow big and fast enough for the meat industry.”

New chicks are de-beaked without anesthesia. Beaks are sensitive, rich in blood vessels with nerve endings. This practice is supposed to prevent injurious pecking, but that would not be a problem if hens were not kept in such confined conditions:

“Squashed into wire mesh cages, allowing only 750 square centimeters (0.8 sq. feet) of space per hen, frustrated motivations and the lack of space means a ‘pecking order’ is replaced by injurious feather pecking. This behavior, with its roots in thwarted instincts, can lead to cannibalism and even death.”

Battery cages have been banned in many countries, but now hens are kept in ‘enriched cages’ that offer a mere postcard-sized space increase per bird. Most laying sheds are windowless and contain 30,000 smelly and distressed birds, whose usual ten-year life spans are shortened to 18 months. Film footage reveals dead, disintegrating bodies strewn among the cages, often in contact with eggs. Filthy trash cans labeled ‘dead stock only’ are swarming with worms.

As Chas Newkey-Burden writes for The Guardian:

"Factory farm practices have become so horrific that high walls have been built, not only literally but metaphorically too. Expert marketers are deliberately misleading consumers. Perhaps their most audacious trick is the 'free-range' brand label that persuades many well-meaning shoppers to pay extra because they believe those eggs will come from a natural environment. The truth can be very different."

Unless you’re getting eggs from true free-range hens that you’ve seen running around the fields or forest, foraging for bugs and seeds, you should not trust anything that appears on an egg carton label. As I remind myself, they’re all ‘sad’ eggs, from sick, abused birds. Suddenly they don’t seem that appealing anymore.

Read the Viva! report here.