Chickens are sociable, intelligent animals. Their natural behavior includes living in stable groups of 30 or so that employ a social hierarchy (the origin of the term pecking order). The chickens in a given flock all know and recognize each other. Their communal activities include scratching and pecking for food, running around, taking dust baths, and resting. They crow and chirp in a range of some 30 meaningful vocalizations. Chickens also have a strong urge to nest, and, like most animal mothers, they nurture their young attentively and affectionately. A hen carefully tends her eggs in the nest, turning them up to five times an hour and clucking to them; remarkably, the unborn chicks chirp back to her and to one another. 

Through the 1950s, even chickens raised for eventual slaughter were kept in traditional small coops of no more than 60 or so birds, with free access to the outdoors; they could nest, roost, and share space according to their natural behavior. But modern large-scale farming practices (“factory farming”) give chickens no opportunity to behave according to their nature. Quite the contrary—the reality of the life and death of factory-farmed chickens, both those raised for meat and those used to lay eggs, is shocking.

As in all factory-farming industries, chicken production is designed for maximum efficiency and maximum profit. With these goals, regard for the welfare of the animals involved is a luxury that reduces profits unless the extra costs can be passed on to the consumer (as on the much-publicized but less frequently seen “free-range” meat and egg farms). The results are overcrowding, disease, high death rates, and observable unhappiness for the animals involved.

The birds raised for meat, called “broilers” by the industry, are the product of genetic manipulation that has drastically increased breast and thigh tissue (the most popular parts of the animal) and produced a very rapid growth rate that outstrips the development of their legs and organs. Broilers raised in this way are supposed to reach “slaughter weight” at just six or seven weeks of age, but the death toll is very high. The growth of abnormally heavy bodies causes crippling and painful skeletal deformities, and the overburdening of the birds’ underdeveloped cardiopulmonary systems often causes congestive heart failure before they are six weeks old. Some broiler chickens who do not succumb to these problems still die of thirst, because they are physically unable to even reach the water nozzles in their sheds. Other common causes of death pre-slaughter are heat prostration, cancer—in an animal less than seven weeks old—and infectious diseases.

Broiler-chicken facilities tend to be extremely overcrowded, with tens of thousands of birds crammed into a single closed broiler house. Each chicken is given less than a square foot of space, so hardly any floor is actually visible. The birds are unable to roam, to scratch, or, indeed, to avoid each other at all. Their instinct to live in a hierarchical community is thwarted, and social tension results. Chickens living in these stressful conditions will peck and fight with each other, which has led chicken producers to the “solution” of debeaking chicks shortly after they hatch in order to minimize damage. This debeaking process, like much else in factory farming, is run assembly-line fashion, without anesthesia; the chicks are placed beak-first into an apparatus that quickly cuts the tips off the beaks with a hot blade.

Once the chickens have attained slaughter weight, they are loaded into crowded trucks that offer no protection from extreme temperatures, and many birds die as they are shipped to processing facilities. The most efficient of these facilities kill some 8,400 birds per hour, the result of a high degree of automation.

Machines run by humans automatically stun the birds, cut their throats, and scald and pluck them. First, human workers strap the live chickens into leg shackles on a moving rail, from which the birds hang upside-down as they move on to baths of electrified water, which stuns them. This is ostensibly for humane purposes, in order to render them insensible before their throats are cut, but some observers believe it is done merely to immobilize them to a degree sufficient to make further processing easier, not to desensitize them. The stunned birds move on to a mechanical blade that cuts their throats. After the chickens bleed out, they are plunged into a scalding bath that removes feathers. Unfortunately, this high-speed assembly-line process contains potential missteps. The voltage in the electrified bath may be too low, resulting in the rapid recovery of the chickens, who are then well aware of the throat-cutting machine as they approach it. The blade misses many chickens, so they consequently are boiled alive in the scalding bath.Chickens are exempted from the USDA’s Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which mandates that animals be rendered insensible to pain before being slaughtered. 

Egg-laying hens

As bad as conditions are for chickens raised for meat, they are even worse for birds in the egg industry. 

There are about 300 million laying hens just in the United States; of these, some 95 percent are kept in wire battery cages, which allow each hen an average of 67 square inches of space—less than the size of a standard sheet of paper. For perspective, a hen needs 72 square inches of space to be able to stand up straight and 303 square inches to be able to spread and flap her wings. There is no room even for the hens to perform self-comforting behaviors such as preening and bathing. Hens are usually kept eight or nine to a cage; long tiers of these cages are built one upon another in sheds that hold tens of thousands of birds, none of whom has enough room to raise a wing. Excrement falls from the top cages to the lower ones, causing the same “ammonia burn” problem as in the broiler houses. Like chickens raised for meat, laying hens are de-beaked as chicks. The hens are deprived of the ability to create nests for their eggs, which instead drop through the wires of the cage for collection. This inability to engage in instinctive behavior causes great frustration.

The methods used to maximize production include manipulation of lighting to change the hens’ environment and hence their biological cycles; unnaturally long periods of simulated daylight encourage laying. Periodic forced molting creates an additional laying cycle: during this time, the hens are kept in darkness and put on a “starvation” diet (reduced-calorie feed) or starved altogether for up to two weeks.

Caged in this way, hens are unable to exercise, and constant egg production leaches calcium from their bones; these two factors cause severe osteoporosis, which leads to broken bones and great pain for the hens. The syndrome is called Cage-Layer Fatigue. Additionally, the wires of the cage injure the feet of the chickens, as the hens must sit in essentially one position their whole lives with their feet pressing into the wires. They rub against the sides of the cage, which causes severe feather loss and skin abrasions. In essence, hens who would normally be able to use their whole bodies and have lives as full as those of any other animal in nature are reduced to immobilized egg-laying machines, existing for that one purpose only.

The hens live like this for about two years or less, until their bodies are exhausted from the stresses of constant laying and their egg production decreases. At that point, they are shipped too slaughter to be turned into animal feed or sometimes human food or are simply discarded.

A sad side effect of the egg-production industry is the wholesale destruction of male chicks, who are useless to the egg industry. These chicks are not used in the meat industry either, because they have not been genetically manipulated for meat production. Male chicks are ground up in batches while still alive, suffocated in trash cans, or gassed.

What about free-range eggs and meat?

Many people, distressed by learning about these conditions, pledge to eat only “free-range” eggs and meat, which they imagine come from chickens that have free access to the outdoors and fresh air. There are some facilities like that, but in reality, there is no uniform standard for the free-range designation. No regulations exist that describe the size of the outdoor area or the number of birds allowed in a single shed, for example. A free-range chicken facility need only be cage-free and provide “access” to the outdoors through a door. In practice, the facilities may be windowless and as overcrowded as any other, and only a few chickens may ever be able to reach the door at all. Further, the breeds used are likely to be the standard ones used in non-free-range operations: free-range broilers are, like other broilers, bred for such high meat production that the birds are unable to move about freely even if they want to, and both broiler and laying hens are susceptible to the same life-threatening conditions of heart failure and osteoporosis as any other agribusiness chicken. Free-range laying hens, like all other laying hens, are killed after about a year or two when their egg production drops. They are usually slaughtered under the same conditions described above. Like battery chickens, free-range chickens come from hatcheries that kill the male chicks.

Higher welfare alternatives for hens

In the UK, free-range systems are the most popular of the non-cage alternatives, accounting for around 50% of all eggs produced.

Free range hens in a shed

In free-range systems, hens are kept in sheds using the floor space only, but those with several levels of platforms or perches are called aviaries. In Europe, the maximum stocking density is 9 hens per square meter. This allows the hens much greater freedom of movement than is possible in cage systems. They can stretch, flap their wings and fly. They can also perform other natural behaviors such as pecking, scratching and laying their eggs in a nest.

Organic systems

Organic farms certified by the Soil Association, must provide additional space; each hen has a minimum of 10 square meters of outside space, and do not allow beak trimming. EU organic regulations limit stocking density inside the barn to 6 birds per square meter.

Organic free range hens in a barn

The USDA doesn’t have stringent requirements for egg farming in free-range or organic settings. Yes, they’re required to allow laying hens access to the outdoors, but they’re not required to provide a minimum amount of space per hen, nor do the requirements specify the quality of food, water, or veterinary care.

Indeed, according to PETA, free-range birds often experience the same abuses they endure in factory farming operations. They get de-beaked and declawed. They’re left to wander in their own waste, they can’t socialize as they would normally do, and they don’t have enough space to take dust baths.

These atrocities can occur even when the egg farming business labels their “products” as free-range or cage-free or organic. Don’t let the labels fool you.

Pasture raised

Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has revised their laying hen standards, which now divide the “Free Range” section of the standards into “Pasture Raised” and “Free range.” The revised standards add a third category for birds which are outdoors seasonally. This change in standards means that “Certified Humane” producers wishing to use the terms “Pasture Raised” on packages must now meet the requirements of the newly defined categories.

HFAC’s Certified Humane “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated. The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile housing where the hens can go inside at night to roost, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather. All additional standards must be met.

Any product labeling terms that are important to consumers need to be clearly defined. The Certified Humane labeling program is in place to assure a trusted product for consumers who care about how animals are raised and slaughtered for food.

While it takes time for the entire industry to adapt best practices, HFAC have the opportunity to break ground, and they do so every year as they revise and raise their standards.

Pasture raised rotational system

What’s the Best Response to Egg Farming?

People have eaten meat, eggs, dairy products, honey, and other animal by-products for centuries. Industrial animal agriculture created ways for the meat industry to hasten production and reduce the quality of life for laying hens as well as many other animal species.

It’s easy to put your hands over your ears and turn a blind eye to what’s really going on at egg farms, but the humane thing to do is embrace it. Realize that it’s a broken industry — one that was broken from the beginning — and that egg farming contributes just as much to animal suffering as poultry farming, dairy farming and similar enterprises.

That doesn’t have to continue. In fact, it shouldn’t. We’re evolved enough as human beings to recognize suffering when we see it and to endeavor to stop it. It’s our moral obligation to speak up on animal matters and make humane choices no matter what.

Become a conscious consumer, choose Pasture Raised.