Just over half of the eggs from the 36 million hens alive in Britain today continue to be laid by hens living their entire ‘productive’ lives in vertically stacked ‘enriched’ cages. The enriched cage is cleverly named dupes consumers into believing that the suffering going hand-in-hand with the controversial ‘battery’ cage is a thing of the past.
And some consumers are unaware that hens are caged at all in this country …
How hens are housed on enriched cage farms
The 750cm2 enriched cage provides less than a postcard-size extra space for each bird than the now banned battery cage. A cage height of only 45 cm2 is afforded, and hens are now forced to live in extreme close confinement with up to 80 other cramped and frustrated individuals. Hens are also incarcerated for longer nowadays, and bred to lay more eggs than ever before.
The so-called ‘enrichment’ in these cages is meagre at best: A ‘dust bath’, ‘scratching pad’, perches and a ‘nest box’. Wipe from your mind though the images these words evoke! Nest boxes, for example, are flaps of plastic hanging from the cage tops, and hens must compete with others even for this pathetic offering. So much so that some individuals may never even lay an egg in one.
Enriched cages impose gross restrictions on basic movements and fail to cater for a hen's physical and behavioural needs on a staggering scale. The floor alone is a serious welfare assault because it is sloped and made of barren wire. How is it that on modern-day farms hens must stand on excruciatingly uncomfortable and injurious sloping wire? The answer is a sad one. A sloping wire floor means eggs can easily roll to one side of the cage and onto a conveyer belt. The welfare of hens comes secondary to collecting eggs.
But it is not just the cage and furnishings that are problematic. Incarcerated hens are at the mercy of others. Widespread and sometimes lethal feather pecking is a grim consequence of cage life. And the industry’s answer? To slice or burn off the beaks of baby chicks. From birth to death, these birds are subjected to a torturous life that evolves around commodity and profit for farmers.
With mega egg companies like Noble Foods owning both enriched and free range farms, even people buying free range because they care are often unwittingly funding the suffering of caged hens.
Finally, when their time is up and they are deemed no longer of any use, laying hens are labelled as ‘spent’ and sent off for ‘processing’. This is the true cost of eggs.
Viva!’s investigation findings
Viva! investigators went inside enriched cage farms across Britain for over a year. Some of them churning out eggs for two of Britain’s largest egg companies – Ridgeway Foods and Noble Foods. Both supplying millions of eggs to consumers each week.
Our findings document an extreme form of factory farming. Suffering that was present on every farm, and in every cage. Gross conditions and similar welfare problems to those widely acknowledged to be present in battery cages around the world. Extensive feather loss, live birds walking amongst the dead, beak mutilation, birds crammed into cages with no privacy or means of escape, air thick with dust, wire cage floors covered in faeces, and sick, stressed and dying birds.
At one farm in Withernsea on the east coast of England churning out eggs for the company K Fresh and claiming to be ‘enriched colony specialists’ – 20,000 birds were housed in one huge, stinking shed. The noise here was deafening. Cages were stacked from floor to ceiling and crammed full of birds. Viva! filmed frantically flapping individuals – some with extensive feather loss - and others standing on the dead. The level of contempt by farmers for animals supposedly in their care is appalling.
Ironically, the K Fresh egg boxes are illustrated with pictures of grass, despite the fact that the company’s incarcerated birds will never feel or even see it. Our investigators left the sheds asking themselves would consumers really buy into this if they knew? Viva!’s Cracked campaign aims to ensure they find out!
Similar conditions were encountered by investigators at a Ridgeway Foods farm in Wolverhampton. As with all enriched cage farms visited by Viva!, evidence of debeaking was rife. Feather pecking is a sure sign that the housing conditions are not corresponding with the behavioural needs of hens, and a direct consequence of the inability of hens to move away from others in the same cage. Each hen at the Wolverhampton farm was once again living in a crammed, filthy cage. As with all the farms visited by Viva!, many individuals had severe feather loss, with some exposing red raw skin underneath. Some poor birds were almost entirely lacking in feathers. The cage floors were covered in faeces and littered with dead hens. Ridgeway Foods is one of the largest UK egg suppliers, stocking all the leading supermarkets.
As part of this year-long investigation, Viva! founder and director, Juliet Gellatley, visited an enriched cage farm in Bedfordshire, Bird Bros. You can watch the video and read about Juliet’s visit to the farm.
Enriched cages barely satisfy the hen’s most basic behavioural and physical needs such as wing stretching, walking, running and jumping. Birds in them certainly cannot fly. It is clear, no matter how much the egg industry tries to dress it up, this life for hens is anything but ‘enriched’.
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