Chickens for Eggs
(photo: Leoncillo Sabino)
To anyone observing a hen with her babies, it soon becomes clear why we refer to protective, nurturing people as “mother hens.” Hens are one of nature’s most devoted mamas, and enjoy motherhood so thoroughly that stories abound of hens “adopting” bunnies, kittens, and even whole litters of puppies. When it’s time to build a nest, the soon-t0-be mother picks the safest, most secluded space she can find, and plucks a bald spot on her belly so she can warm the eggs and chicks directly with her skin. Hens and their offspring begin communicating before the chicks are even born, with the mother clucking softly to her babies, and the chicks peeping back from inside their shells to let her know they will soon begin hatching. One of the most amazing sights you will ever ever see is a seemingly solitary hen stand up, and as many as 20 fuzzy babies go scattering out from under her! And one of the bravest things you will ever see is a mother hen defending her chicks against a perceived threat, no matter how large or fierce.
Unfortunately, the greatest threat to the lives of domestic hens and their chicks is one they will never be able to defend against. Every year in the U.S. alone, more than 9 billion chickens are killed by humans for food; 450 million of those are chickens killed by the egg industry. (1) Despite the misconception that consuming milk and egg products does not harm animals, both dairy cows and egg-laying hens are subjected to the same cruel practices used to produce most meats. These include intensive confinement; routine mutilations without painkiller; deprivation of natural behaviors; severe illness and injury left untreated; horrific transport conditions; and slaughter while still very young.
Slaughter of babies
Egg production, like dairy production, begins with the mass slaughter of male babies considered useless to the industry. While female chicks can replace “spent” and slaughtered egg layers, male chicks cannot lay eggs and aren’t considered the proper breed for meat. Every year in the U.S., 260 million fuzzy yellow chicks are disposed of by suffocation in large garbage bags, ground up alive in giant machines that work like wood chippers, or sucked through a series of vacuum tubes to an electrified “kill plate.” (2) (3)
Female chicks are shipped to egg producers. An estimated 95% of all egg-laying hens in the U.S.–nearly 300 million birds– are intensively confined in battery cages. (4) With between 5 to 10 birds crammed into each small cage, battery hens spend their entire lives with less than a standard sheet of paper’s worth of space per bird, unable to stretch their wings or often even to turn around. Day after day in these maddening conditions, all that these curious, intelligent birds are able to do is stand or slump on the cage floor’s hard wires, which cut them painfully. Without access to litter or any other scratching surface, the hens’ claws also grow unnaturally long, often curling and hardening grotesquely around the floor wires.
photo by Igualdad Animal
Like all animals, chickens have a strong drive to express instinctive behaviors that are crucial to their basic welfare. These include sunbathing, nesting, preening, perching, scratching, foraging, dust-bathing, roosting, stretching and exploring. But caged chickens are denied all of these natural behaviors, causing them severe anxiety and despair which leads to neurotic coping mechanisms such as feather-pecking of their cagemates. To discourage injurious pecking, the standard industry practice is “debeaking,” a painful procedure in which ½ to ⅔ of each bird’s sensitive beak is seared off with a hot blade, without anesthetic. Chickens’ beaks, much like our own fingertips, are loaded with specialized sensory nerves to facilitate food detection in the wild. Debeaking is so painful for these birds that some die of shock on the spot; for others, eating becomes so excruciating that they die of starvation.
Molting is a natural process in hens intended to allow their bodies to rest and rejuvenate. Over a period of 2 to 4 months, usually in the fall, hens will naturally shed old feathers and grow new ones, and stop laying eggs while their reproductive tracts recharge. During this time, their bodies replenish important nutrients lost in egg production. Because the molting process in hens is followed by a new laying cycle of higher quality eggs, commercial egg producers commonly employ forced molting, the practice of shocking hens’ bodies into new laying cycles via starvation or malnourishment. Depending on the producer, chickens are deprived of all or some food, or fed nutrient-deficient fillers, from 10 to 14 days, during which time they suffer greatly; in desperation, many pull out their cagemates’ feathers and try to digest them; many die. (5) According to the USDA, at any given time over 6 million hens in the U.S. are being systematically starved in their cages. (6)
Although chickens can live up to 15 years, egg-laying hens are generally slaughtered between 18 months and 2 years of age, when their egg production rates decline. Transport to the slaughterhouse is a highly traumatic, often fatal experience for egg-laying hens and broiler chickens. “Catchers” remove battery hens from their cages by roughly grabbing one or both legs, carrying 2-4 birds upside-down per hand, then tossing or stuffing them into packed transport crates as quickly as possible. Battery cage hens are especially susceptible to bone breakage as a result of calcium depletion from overproduction of eggs, combined with further osteoporosis from lack of exercise. Post-mortem studies have shown that at least 30% of hens incur new bone breaks during transport and shackling, and many more show older fractures. (7) During transport to slaughter, literally hundreds of millions of chickens each year in the U.S. suffer broken legs and wings, lacerations, hemorrhage, dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and heart failure; millions die along the way.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture excludes birds from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, meaning no laws are in place requiring that egg-laying hens or broiler chickens be rendered unconscious before they are shackled and killed. (8) Hens are roughly hung by their feet and dragged head-first through an electrified bath that merely paralyzes them for the throat cutter, but does not render them insensible to pain.(9) Most birds are still conscious when their throats are sliced, and many are still alive when they are plunged into the scald tank. At the end of their miserable lives, the degraded bodies of commercial egg-laying hens are so broken and damaged that the bruised meat is considered fit for sale only in diced or shredded form–it is used in chicken noodle soups, pet foods, and canned, pulped meat, much of which goes to the National School Lunch program. (10)
What About “Happy Hens”?
If you’re buying “cage free,” “free range” or “humane certified” eggs from a grocery store, there’s a good chance you are being deceived about the welfare of egg-laying hens. (11 ) Because “humane” labeling terms are not meaningfully defined or enforced, suppliers are notorious for manipulating intentional loopholes in these loosely interpreted standards. (12) In a recent report, even Trader Joe’s “cage free” egg suppliers were found to debeak their hens, which means the birds were also living in severely crowded facilities. (13) Massive confinement operations, like Sparboe Farms and Perdue Farms, that confine millions of chickens in deplorable conditions, are awarded “humanely raised” certification through a USDA-sponsored fraudulent labeling scheme. (14) (Read the full Humanewashed report, or watch undercover footage of these so-called “humanely raised” practices. (15) )
Our Deciphering Humane Labels and Loopholes page provides a full list of current welfare-related packaging claims, and will help you understand the various inhumane practices still permitted under terms like “cage free” and “free range.” It’s important to realize that humane labeling is often a marketing ploy that preys on consumer willingness to pay more for better treatment of animals. Ultimately, no matter how well they’re treated, there’s nothing humane about harming and killing animals for pleasure— which is all that eating animals amounts to when it isn’t a necessity for survival.
EASY, DELICIOUS EGG SUBSTITUTES FOR EVERY RECIPE:
• Vinegar and Baking Soda: For a rising or lightening effect in cakes, cupcakes and breads, combine 1 teaspoon of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of vinegar.
• Ground Flaxseed: Rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids, 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed whisked with 3 tablespoons of water in a blender or food processor will replace one egg. Flaxseed works best in nutty, grainy items like pancakes, waffles, bran muffins and oatmeal cookies.
• Bananas: For its binding abilities, half of a potassium and magnesium rich mashed or pureed banana will generally replace one or two eggs in breads, muffins, cakes and pancakes.
• Applesauce: Full of fiber and vitamin C, unsweetened applesauce offers the binding and moisture needed in baked goods. 1/4 cup equals one egg. Applesauce works best when you want the results to be moist, as in brownies.
• Silken Tofu: Rich in protein and fiber, but without the cholesterol and little, if any, saturated fat, this soy-based ingredient works best in dense, moist cakes and brownies. One egg can be replaced with 1/4 cup of tofu whipped in a blender or food processor.
• ENER-G Egg Replacer: Available in a handy box in most food stores, this nonperishable powdered product works well in baking, but is best in cookies.
Scrambles, Omelets, Egg dishes:
Beyond Eggs This innovative, plant-based “egg” for all egg applications, is healthier, safer, and kind.
(1) A Well Fed World>Farming>Factory Farming>Chickens, http://awellfedworld.org/issues/animalprotection
(2) An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Egg Industry, p.1 http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_egg.pdf
(3) An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Egg Industry http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_egg.pdf, p.1 “Hatching”
(4) United Egg Producers, Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks, 2010 Edition, p.1 http://www.unitedegg.org/information/pdf/UEP_2010_Animal_Welfare_Guidelines.pdf
(5) Dr. Ian J.H. Duncan, “Forced Molting Violates California’s Animal Cruelty Laws,” http://www.upc-online.org/001113duncan_molt_letter.html
(6) United Poultry Concerns, http://www.upc-online.org/molting/
(7) An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Egg Industry http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_egg.pdf, p.7
(8) An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Egg Industry http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_egg.pdf, p.8
(9) Gail Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse, Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 1997, p.166.
(10) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “The Egg Industry” http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/egg-industry.aspx
(11) United Poultry Concerns, “Black Eagle Farm: Story of an Organic Egg Scam,” http://www.upc-online.org/pp/winter2010/black_eagle.html
(12) United Poultry Concerns, “Free Range Poultry and Eggs Not All They’re Cracked Up To Be,” http://www.upc-online.org/freerange.html
(13) David Sudarsky, “My Quest For A Humane Egg,” http://www.thevegetariansite.com/ed_eggs.htm
(14) PR Newswire, “USDA Helps Industrial Farms Claim Humane and Con Consumers, Says AWI” http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/usda-helps-industrial-farms-claim-humane-and-con-consumers-says-awi-151878275.html
(15) Animal Welfare Institute report: “Humanewashed: USDA Process Verified Program Misleads Consumers About Animal Welfare Marketing Claims”