The Egg Shortage Reflects a Cruel, Unsustainable System

The depopulation of millions of laying hens brings attention to the overcrowded conditions on factory farms.

Food Inflation Continues To Increase With Eggs Costing 38% More Than A Year Ago
Brandon Bell / Getty Images

This month, many grocery store shelves are nearly bare of egg cartons, with prices higher than ever. The retail price of eggs increased roughly 60% in December 2022 compared to 2021, according to a Consumer Price Index released last week. There are two culprits for the soaring costs: inflation and an egg shortage.

The latter is caused by the recent avian flu outbreak that was first detected last February. This highly contagious and deadly virus continues to impact chickens, including laying hens, as well as other farmed animals and wild birds around the world. The New York Times reported that 57 million birds have been infected, and more than 44 million laying hens in the U.S. have been “depopulated,” or killed, as a result.

Many facilities are eager to return to peak production numbers, and consumers are hoping eggs get restocked and prices drop soon. But before returning to the egg aisle, perhaps we can pause and examine the living conditions of factory-farmed chickens that inevitably contributed to the spread of the virus and depopulation of millions of hens.

Laying Hens and Factory Farms

Almost all domestic chickens in the United States are kept in factory farms, otherwise known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). On commercial farms, chickens are bred and raised exclusively for their meat or eggs. While some farms ensure humane conditions—certified free-range hens have access to outdoor space, for example—CAFOs keep chickens in battery cages, which often do not allow for much movement and contain multiple chickens. The lack of space can cause stress and physical disorders, in turn making the chickens more vulnerable to disease.

battery cage of Layer Chickens with Multilevel production line conveyor production line of chicken eggs of a poultry farm, Layer Farm housing, Agriculture technological equipment factory
Battery cages restrict the movement of laying hens. chayakorn lotongkum / Getty Images

"Even mild strains of animal viruses can have a catastrophic impact, since they are able to mutate into variants capable of killing both animals and humans," Dena Jones, Animal Welfare Institute’s farm animal program director, said in a press release regarding the virus last year. "Factory farms are ideal incubators for disease—cramped, filthy warehouses for massive flocks or herds of animals bred to possess little genetic diversity. Yet producers remain unwilling to effectively plan for emergencies."

Even without an avian flu outbreak, overcrowded animal agriculture facilities are unsanitary, especially with insufficient outdoor access. CAFOs with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of hens produce tremendous amounts of waste, which contain chemicals, ammonia, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Waste of this scale contaminates the air and water, creating major environmental, human health, and animal welfare concerns.

Of course, animal welfare is not prioritized at CAFOs. Laying hens are treated as egg-producing machines on factory farms. According to The Humane League, many are bred and genetically manipulated to lay 300 eggs per year. Meanwhile, wild chickens naturally lay about 10 eggs each year.

It is clear by the mass depopulation of hens in the past year that, aside from being unethical, our egg production system is unsustainable. The cruelty of industrial animal agriculture cannot be ignored in conversations about our food systems and shortages.

What Can Be Done?

Factory farm conditions will not improve overnight. In addition, large-scale egg operations have made it challenging for small farms with sustainable practices to compete in the market. Not everyone can afford to spend $7 or more on a dozen organic, cage-free eggs each week.

Fortunately, small steps still matter. Advocating for the humane treatment of animals used in agriculture and buying eggs from local farms when possible are ethical steps toward positive change. 

View Article Sources
  1. Jiménez, Jesus. "Can You Find Eggs Here or There? Can You Find Them Anywhere?" The New York Times, 12 Jan. 2023.

  2. Anthis, Jacy Reese. "US Factory Farming Estimates." Sentience Institute.

  3. Hartcher, K., and B. Jones. "The welfare of layer hens in cage and cage-free housing systems." World's Poultry Science Journal, vol. 73, no. 4, 2017, doi:10.1017/S0043933917000812

  4. "Avian Flu Outbreak Illustrates How Factory Farming Threatens Animal Welfare and Public Health." Animal Welfare Institute. 26 May 2022. Press release.

  5. "Why are CAFOs bad?" Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.

  6. "Factory-Farmed Chickens: The Cruelty of Chicken Farms." The Humane League.