At this point, most people know that the chicken and egg industry isn’t perfect, but a vast number of people aren’t aware of the horrific details of how chicken and eggs are made. We also didn’t know much about this before we went vegan and assumed that eggs were cruelty-free. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and it’s particularly saddening as for most of human history, chickens and roosters had a special place in most societies. They were seen as sacred and admired for their skills and character, and in many instances were deemed too special to be killed for food. Seeing how we used to acknowledge and respect their uniqueness, the fate of chickens today is rather tragic.
The fate of male chicks
Male chicks are killed shortly after hatching. As males can’t lay eggs, they aren’t profitable to farmers, so they’re disposed of as soon as their sex is determined. This is known as ‘sexing’, which is done on a production line with several workers tossing not only the male but weak and sick female chicks to their deaths too. There are several ways in which the chicks are killed: simply thrown into grinders, also known as ‘quick maceration’, crammed into plastic bags and left to suffocate or gassed with carbon dioxide. In some countries, chicks can be drowned. Billions of male chicks are killed every year! In the UK this number is 30 to 40 million and in the Netherlands another 45 million a year. This dispels the idea that there’s no death involved in the production of eggs.
The female chicks that are healthy enough to avoid the grinder have the tips of their beaks burned off with a hot blade – without the use of painkillers – to limit the damage the hens will inevitably inflict on each other when later confined to tiny spaces. Debeaking with an infra-red beam is another way that chicks are debeaked, which takes several weeks before the beak erodes. A bird’s beak is extremely sensitive, and research has shown that debeaked birds can experience the same symptoms as amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain. In a natural environment, chickens will occasionally peck at each other, as this is how the ‘pecking order’ is established. Pecking is natural for birds and they do so to explore the environment and investigate each other and work out how they fit in. However, once you crowd hens together in small spaces, pecking occurs far more frequently and results in numerous unpleasantries such as cannibalism, vent pecking (also known as cloaca pecking, basically pecking around the chicken’s ass), and severe feather pecking. These are all behaviours almost exclusively seen in commercial chicken farms. Research suggests that this behaviour isn’t natural, but learned by chickens when they are young by seeing other chickens do it. Even though debeaking is intended to solve the problem of violent pecking, it doesn’t. Chickens will still get frustrated and attack each other, debeaking just serves to limit the damage they do to each other. In addition, research suggests that debeaking causes both acute and chronic pain and negatively influences the animal’s well-being.
Life in a cage
Hens can live for more than a decade, but on battery farms, most layer hens won’t even see their second birthday. They’ll live in dark, windowless sheds, confined to a cage with other birds, without enough space to spread their wings. This cage will be stacked on top of other cages in one of the many rows lining the building. Most hens will have about 430cm² of space. To put that into context, a sheet of A4 is 623.7cm². In the EU, ‘enriched cages’ are used in place of the banned battery cages. However, these preferred cages are still only 750 cm2, of which only 600cm² is usable. Despite the ban, some farms have been found guilty of still using battery cages. In the small amount of space the hens do have, there’s nothing for them to do other than stand on the wire mesh, which cripples their feet, rubs off their feathers and damages their skin. Broken bones, deformed bodies, and disease are all common in these conditions, and hens often die under the stress or as a result of cannibalism and rot next to their cagemates until noticed and replaced with another hen.
Today’s egg-laying hens are descendants of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus). Before the beginning of their domestication a few thousand years ago the Red Jungle Fowl would lay 6 eggs a year. Just like most bird species, they would only lay a few eggs in spring and then not again until the next year. However, most hens today are forced to lay more than 300 eggs a year. While the number of eggs a chicken could lay has slowly been rising by years of selective breeding, in the last few decades this art has been perfected by using artificial insemination to create chickens that lay even more frequently. In addition, their environment is manipulated to make them lay more eggs, which is done with artificial lighting. By controlling the light, hens are tricked into believing it’s always breeding season.
In addition, laying eggs is really hard work for chickens. Producing an egg requires many nutrients, especially calcium for the shell. As there isn’t enough calcium in their food to compensate for the amount needed to make the shells, hens often suffer from osteoporosis which can lead to broken bones and sometimes paralysis. Other conditions egg layers suffer from are uterine prolapse (the uterus inside out), ovarian cancer, egg yolk peritonitis (inflammation and infection caused by egg yolk in the abdominal cavity), egg binding (eggs getting stuck in the oviduct), and fatty liver syndrome.
After 12 months, the productivity of a hen begins to decline, so they’re considered ‘spent’ and sent to slaughter. To exploit the birds to the fullest, some countries (e.g. the US) starve hens, which forces them to produce more eggs. This is known as forced moulting. The hens are denied food and water for almost 3 weeks which shocks their bodies into moulting, making them produce more eggs. Another method sometimes used to induce moulting is by feeding the chickens low-calory feed. If the hen survives, this process will be repeated several times until they are completely exhausted, at which point they’re sent to the slaughterhouse. The lifespan of a chicken is about 10 years, so egg-laying hens barely get to live one-tenth of that before being killed. Similarly, the hens used to breed new egg-layers are also slaughtered after about one year due to deteriorating productivity.
Pictures from Ex-Legkipjes, a small NGO in the Netherlands that adopts chickens from the egg-industry just before they are being send to the slaughterhouse. They try to nurse the chickens back to health and let the chickens live out the rest of their lives on their property.
Going to the slaughterhouse
The journey to the slaughterhouse is the only daylight most chickens will see. Broken bones and internal hemorrhages are all too common, as the birds are quickly thrown into tiny crates by teams who are responsible for capturing and loading them. This isn’t a process that can be done carefully, as these teams are usually required to capture between 1000-1500 birds per hour. Hens that spend their entire lives in cages are especially vulnerable to having their bones broken, as lives confined to battery cages without opportunities to exercise their muscles causes their bones to become weak and brittle. Once in the cages, the highly stressful situation results in fights between the animals, causing even more physical harm. It can be hundreds of miles to the slaughterhouse, yet hens are deprived of food and water and travel through all weather conditions. The exhausted hens that manage to survive this journey are met at the slaughterhouse by workers who violently pull them from the crates and force their legs into shackles, often resulting in yet more injuries.
Hanging upside-down, the hens are dragged through an electrified water bath. The electricity is supposed to render the birds unconscious, but this doesn’t work very well. First of all, it’s very common for them to regain consciousness after entering the water bath, as it takes birds much longer than mammals to lose brain responsiveness. Research has shown that hens can recover consciousness after only 22 seconds, meaning that those who don’t have a cardiac arrest from the electrified water will be alert even when they get their throat cut. As this also doesn’t always happen properly, it isn’t rare for chickens to enter the scalding tanks fully conscious. In addition, some research suggests that electrified water baths only paralyse birds but don’t render them unconscious even when done properly. This would mean that while some birds appear to be unconscious (not moving), they might still feel what is happening to them when they enter the scalding tanks. Furthermore, 14 abattoirs in the UK use automatic neck-cutters that only slice one carotid artery, after which it takes at least 5 minutes for the bird to bleed to death. Viva! has estimated that in the UK alone, at least 8.4 million birds every year miss both the electrified water bath and the throat cutter and will still be fully conscious and moving when entering the scalding tank.
Many people think that the solution to this cruelty is to buy free-range eggs. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Male chicks are still killed at birth as free-range or not, they aren’t profitable to farmers. During their short lives, free-range hens will be confined to a shed that they’ll share with thousands of other birds. With regards to space, free-range hens aren’t that much better off: most barns have a stocking density of up to 4 hens per square metre. The birds in these barns are only a few square centimetres better off than their companions in ‘enriched’ cages. In these barns, there are several exits known as ‘pop-holes’ that the hens can use to access the outdoors, but due to overcrowding and dominant hens guarding the exits and asserting the pecking-order, the majority of birds never see daylight. When the productivity of a hen begins to decline, they’re still dragged through an electric water bath before having their throats sliced. As the transport and slaughter method is no different from hens raised in cages, the same complications can occur.
While it might be clear to most people why commercially produced eggs are produced in a cruel way, eating eggs from chickens in your own or someone else’s backyard is not a solution either. Firstly, this obviously wouldn’t be a solution for everyone, as we couldn’t provide everybody with eggs from backyards alone. Secondly, in most cases, the male chicks still die. Most people who want to buy backyard chickens want several females and either one or no roosters. Therefore, breeders of backyard chickens often kill their male chicks as well. But even if you already have backyard chickens, the most animal-friendly option would be to not eat the eggs. You could give them to someone who is buying commercially produced eggs to ensure that that person contributes less to the egg industry. However, the best thing you can do is to just let the eggs be. Removing the eggs from a hen encourages her to lay even more, as she feels she’s lost them, so she works hard to replace them. In addition, chickens often eat their own eggs when they don’t hatch, which helps the hen replenish valuable nutrients. If your chickens aren’t eating their eggs, try boiling them and then give them back to your chickens. As even backyard chickens nowadays are a species of chicken that has been bred for thousands of years to lay more eggs than are natural, it takes a huge toll on their body to lay so many eggs, which requires a lot of energy and nutrients. So instead of taking the eggs from hens to eat, try some of the many alternatives!
Other usages: vaccines
In addition to all the eggs produced as food, billions of eggs are used every year to make vaccines, which usually requires about 3 eggs per vaccine. Already in 2012 a new method of making vaccines was found that does’t require the use of eggs. However, as switching to this new method would require enormous amounts of money (new facilities, re-educating workers, and of course a devastating blow to the egg industry) changing to egg-free vaccines is quite a way off. Pushing for egg-free vaccines could make a huge difference for millions of chickens around the world.
Alternatives for eggs
Replacing eggs is easy enough. It’s even kind of weird that nowadays we add eggs to pretty much everything we bake. In the past, eggs were often scarce so the recipes for baking things mostly did not contain them. Only later people started to add eggs to make cakes and cookies more calorie-dense. Nowadays most people consume plenty of calories so eggs aren’t necessary at all. Bananas make a great substitute when baking cakes or making pancakes. But watch out, bananas will somewhat influence the flavour, so make sure all the ingredients work well together. Other egg replacements when baking are flaxseeds, chia seeds, applesauce, aquafaba or one of the many brands of commercial egg replacements. Online you can find plenty of information about which alternative works best in specific types of recipes. To make a scrambled egg, you can use tofu. Some vegans are particularly creative, making all sorts of vegan boiled or fried eggs that apparently taste very similar to real eggs, but we personally haven’t tried these yet.
Byrn, Anne (2016). American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-loved Cakes. Rodale Press, Emmaus.
Foer, Jonathan Safran (2009). Eating Animals. Penguin Books, London.
Lawler, Andrew (2015). How The Chicken Crossed the World: The Story of the Bird that Powers Civilization. Duckworth Overlook, London.
PETA, Wakker Dier, Viva! & Ex-Legkipjes