Picture it. Green pastures. Wide-open spaces. Happy chickens are wandering about, basking in the sunlight, scratching in the dirt, living their best life, doing what chickens do. Is this what you picture when you hear the term cage-free? Unfortunately, the egg industry can paint this beautiful picture into our minds with just those two words. The reason is pretty simple. That is what we would like to believe. And if we think that, we will continue to support a cruel, inhumane industry mindlessly.
The Cage-Free Lie
Let’s start from the beginning. Small cages, often called battery cages, have been the preferred method of hen housing in the egg industry since the 1960s. These cages are smaller than the size of a sheet of paper. The average sheet of notebook paper is 8-1/2×11 inches. The average battery cage size for housing a hen is around 8×8 inches. The hens barely have enough room to stand or sit. They do not have room to stretch their wings or even turn around. And forget about scratching in the dirt for a tasty bug, taking a refreshing dust bath, or enjoying a little sunlight and fresh air. They eat, sleep, and defecate in this one area day after day. The human equivalent might be similar to living and working your entire life, every minute of every day, inside a coffin or a phone booth, perhaps sharing this space with a few more people as well.
What does cage-free mean? Well, it means just that; no cage. But that doesn’t mean free. It also doesn’t mean outside or in any natural habitat. “Cage-free” chickens live their entire lives in hen houses. Their living spaces are cramped because too many chickens are in the same area. There aren’t many regulations regarding how many chickens farmers can keep in one barn. And any laws that might exist aren’t closely monitored. While the size of the building would suggest plenty of room, the truth is there are so many chickens that they can hardly move. Other chickens often trample weaker hens. They have no way to get away from aggressive chickens. Some die from starvation or dehydration because they cannot get through the crowds of other chickens standing between them and the food and water. Think of that one horrible concert where you needed to get out of the crowd but were surrounded by hundreds of people and couldn’t move in any direction. Imagine some of those people are aggressive, or you fall, and no one notices. Now imagine that’s your entire life. How does cage-free sound now? While cage-free may be a significant improvement from the battery cages that have been standard in the egg industry, it is still a far cry from humane.
Cage-free barns can house thousands of hens at a time. These buildings usually have no windows meaning no natural light and reduced airflow. Hens stand around in their excrement with nowhere else to go. The gasses produced by their waste are toxic for the chickens, the environment, and humans who live nearby. The dim artificial light also tricks their bodies into making more eggs as hens generally lay during the daylight hours. The chickens in these barns never see sunlight, breathe fresh air, and never feel dirt or grass under their feet. Essentially, cage-free barns take away the tiny individual cages and replace them with one giant cell for everyone.
Let’s explore a couple more terms you may see on egg labels:
The term free-range means that the chickens must have an outdoor space available for some of their lives. However, the specification does not specify how much time they are allowed outdoors or how much room constitutes “outdoors .” A farm’s yard space may only accommodate a few chickens at a time. Considering there are generally thousands of hens in one building, it seems obvious that’s not enough space. Some are concrete enclosures that, though technically outside, still don’t allow the chickens to carry out natural chicken behaviors such as dust baths, nesting, or scratching in the dirt for bugs. All-in-all, it seems like “free-range” is just another term to make us feel a little better while supporting this cruel industry.
Pasture-raised is another label you may see on your egg carton, but even this is not closely regulated, so conditions vary from facility to facility. Pasture-raised generally means that chickens have outdoor access for many hours each day. Some farms house their chickens in mobile coops at night and move the cages to a different area of their property each day. This process allows the hens to explore fresh grass every day and live more natural lives. However, their journey still ends in the same way as all the other hens.
The average lifespan for a chicken is five to ten years. The oldest recorded chicken lived 16 years. However, hens in the egg industry are killed between one to three years old. Egg-laying takes a heavy toll on hens, and they produce progressively fewer and lower-quality eggs as they age. Hens are expensive to feed, so when a hen is no longer laying enough eggs to benefit the farmer or to justify feeding her, she is disposed of to make way for fresh egg layers. It all comes down to how much money she can make for the farmer. Laying hens are fed and raised differently than chickens raised for meat, so most are not “suitable” for meat. Some are tossed in the trash after they are killed. Many hens end their journey as pet food.
As you can see, no matter the “quality” of life experienced by the hens, the result is always the same. If they survive their conditions long enough to sacrifice all of their eggs, they are still murdered unceremoniously as soon as they are no longer useful.
The best way to do your part to end hens’ suffering is to remove eggs and other animal products from your life altogether.