The vast majority of eggs sold in the UK come from hens classified as 'caged', 'barn' or 'free-range'. None are without significant suffering; in fact, they have much in common.
All three types of farms send their hens to slaughter at a fraction of their lifespan (one to two years old) and all three require the death of male chicks born to the industry's hatcheries. These chickens have been specially bred not to put on weight but to lay as many eggs as possible--over 300 a year, whereas a wild chicken lays just 20 eggs annually. This takes a serious toll on their bodies and as a result, broken bones are common--36% of caged hens experience at least one fracture, as do 45 to 86% of barn and free-range hens. Many die even before they are to be sent to slaughter.
You can read more about caged and barn eggs below, or check out our dedicated page about free-range eggs.
But first, let's take a look at the hatcheries where all UK eggs come from:
As can be seen in the above video, male chicks are useless to the egg industry. They cannot lay eggs and do not grow quickly enough to be raised for meat. All eggs, including free range, come from these hatcheries.
50% of the egg-laying hens in the UK are kept in cages for their entire lives. These chickens have very little space, not much larger than a single sheet of A4 paper, and not even enough to allow them to spread their wings. There are approximately 17 hens per square metre, and in these enclosed spaces, hens are unable to engage in basic natural behaviours like walking, nesting, spreading their wings, dust bathing, or foraging for food. These cages are advertised as ‘enriched’ and are meant to have nesting space and scratching material to accommodate the strong instincts of the birds, but there is no legal minimum size for either—and the ‘scratching material’ provided is typically just a piece of Astroturf.
As mentioned earlier, these birds are bred to lay at least 300 eggs a year instead of just 20 as chickens do in the wild. Farms also use near constant lighting and high-protein feed to manipulate the birds into laying more. This unnatural cycle takes a major toll on their bodies; many suffer from osteoporosis due to an inability to exercise and the continual drain of calcium to produce egg shells. Also known as 'cage layer fatigue' or 'brittle bone disease', it has been known to be a common cause of premature death for these birds since the 1970s--especially in caged hens, where it has been described as 'inevitable' and resulting in 'both acute and chronic pain'.
These unnatural conditions combined with overcrowding allows disease to spread quickly, especially as there is no limit to how high the cages can be stacked and so the birds’ droppings fall into the cages below. It also causes other serious welfare issues for the birds. In these close confinements their bodies are often crushed as they compete for space. Unable to escape and stressed, many chickens suffer from severe feather loss and foot deformities from standing on wire cage floors.
At one to two years old, their worn bodies are processed into foods that won't show bruising, such as soup, pies and baby food.
Watch Viva's investigation below:
Chickens in barn systems are generally housed in groups of about 4,000. These birds have more space than their caged counterparts, with requirements specifying no more than nine hens per square metre. This is an improvement over cage systems but the chickens are still overcrowded, creating welfare issues similar to those that are found in caged hens, including, as mentioned previously, a high rate of bone fracture. They have no outdoor access and like all other egg-laying hens, will go to slaughter at less than two years old when their production begins to decline--a fraction of their lifespan.
MANIPULATION & MUTILATION
Debeaking, also known as 'beak trimming', is primarily performed on egg-laying hens. (This is because broiler hens are sent to slaughter at just six weeks old, before injurious pecking becomes an major issue.) Eggs from caged and barn systems come from debeaked hens and generally, free-range eggs do too.
In the wild, chickens are social birds who live in freely roaming flocks of 12 to 15. Chickens born to the egg industry, however, live in cramped conditions with thousands of other birds. In these stressful, unnatural circumstances, they can behave aggressively towards one another, pecking and pulling out each other’s feathers to the point of injury. This has led to the routine debeaking of birds using infrared technology. This procedure is usually carried out in a hatchery when chicks are only a day old. The chick’s head is restrained on a carousel while a high intensity infrared beam is used to penetrate up to a third of their beak. Within five weeks, the penetrated area of the beak tissue will die and drop off. Like most procedures, this practice carries complications including possible damage to the soft tissue that leads to impaired beak function and ineffective treatment that results in beak regrowth, requiring further treatment. It is worth noting that no anesthesia or painkiller is used, and this process deprives these birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input. It has been compared to having the ends of your fingers removed. A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore her environment fully, nor can she preen herself or her flockmates. She may also experience acute and chronic pain in her beak, head, and face.
Whether raised for meat or eggs, chickens are caught by their legs and carried (usually several at a time) upside down before they are loaded into small crates for the journey to the slaughterhouse. This rough handling, combined with the speed that chickens are loaded into transport cages (more than a thousand per hour), causes great stress to the birds and often results in painful leg dislocations and broken bones in their wings and legs.
Unlike other farmed animals, there is no maximum journey time for transporting chickens. Some birds will have to face long distance journeys in transport lorries; legal obligations only require that the birds be provided with food and water after 24 hours for newly hatched birds or 12 hours for adults. It is perhaps not surprising, given these stressors, that approximately more than a million annually are already dead by the time they arrive at UK slaughterhouses. An anonymous whistleblower who works at poultry slaughterhouses as a government vet spoke on the issue in early 2021, claiming that birds were being denied water as well as being held in lorries without any temperature control: 'In the summer months they can be sat in the cages with temperatures getting to 40C in some parts of the truck. They would be panting and die from heat stress in a pretty rough way. In the winter, they are being taken out of [...] sheds where they have been kept at 21C and can quickly get cold stress from the sudden temperature drop...' The chicken industry responded by stating that they were 'totally opposed' to any proposals that would require them to use vehicles fitted with proper ventilation and heating.
UK legislation states that while waiting for slaughter, chickens can be shackled by their legs and hung upside down for up to three minutes, a procedure which has been shown to cause significant pain. Before they are slaughtered, their heads are meant to be immersed into an electrical stun bath so as to render them unconscious. This isn't always unsuccessful, however--the struggling birds frequently avoid the water by lifting their heads up and away from it, a movement the industry calls 'swan-necking', or their wings dip into the water instead, causing painful electrical shocks but not unconsciousness. A back-up employee is meant to catch these birds and decapitate them, but with a line speed of up to 9,000 an hour (or 150 a minute) precision is impossible and chickens are missed. This, of course, means that they are carried along the conveyer to have their throats cut whilst fully conscious.
Even when the stun bath is successful, it is not always enough: birds require longer stunning than mammals to fully lose consciousness, and they recover more quickly. Additionally, the industry tends to use a lower current than is necessary, as higher currents damage the carcass. Studies have shown that broiler chickens will recover after 52 seconds; egg-laying hens, just 22 seconds. Unless the stun bath has actually caused cardiac arrest, the birds routinely wake up after their necks have been cut. Depending on whether one or both carotoid artery was cut, they will can take anywhere from three to five minutes to die. This means that sometimes, they are still awake when they reach the next step of the slaughter process--the scalding tank, which is meant to loosen their feathers--and they are boiled alive.
Another method of slaughter is Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS). This has become much more common in the UK over the past decade; sometimes for the purpose of stunning the birds prior to slaughter and sometimes for killing them outright. CAS includes any system which uses gases which work by limiting the oxygen available to the birds, who are conveyed via their transport crates into a tunnel or a pit, or put into a closed cabinet. While this has the advantage of less handling, stunning is not instant, and if the mixture of gasses is not correct, the birds can suffer considerably before finally losing consciousness.
Keel Damage in Laying Hens, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
The Welfare of Laying Hens information sheet, RSPCA, August 2018
Webster, A. B., Welfare implications of avian osteoporosis, PubMed.gov, February 2004
The Welfare of Laying Hens information sheet, RSPCA, August 2018
Newkey-Burden, Chas, Free range is a con. There's no such thing as an ethical egg, The Guardian, 30 January 2017
Briefing on the Welfare Implications of Beak Trimming by Hot Blade and Infra-red Beam, Compassion in World Farming, 26 January 2010
Welfare of Animals During Transport: advice for transporters of poultry, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
Milliken, Alice, Andrew Wasley and Cahal Milmo, Dead on arrival: More than a million chickens die before reaching the slaughterhouse, iNews, 22 January 2018
Levitt, Tom, ‘Dying like flies’: A million chickens die on way from farm to abattoir each year, The Guardian, 26 February 2020
Humane Slaughter: Broiler Chickens, Compassion in World Farming: Food Business
Redhead, Harry, Pigs and chickens were boiled alive at slaughterhouses, animal welfare report reveals, Metro News, 30 August 2016