Battery Cages Being Phased Out

As More Food Suppliers Go Cage Free, Battery Cages Are Phased Out

Battery Egg Farm
Thousands of birds are kept in tiny cages and live horrifying lives. Getty Images

​This article has been updated and important new information has been added. It was edited and re-written in part by Michelle A. Rivera, About.Com's Animal Rights Expert 

Horrifying images of hens crowded in battery cages sometimes inspire people to reach for the “cage-free” carton of eggs at the supermarket. But “cage free” does not mean cruelty free, and savvy consumers have made their voices heard by refusing to purchase eggs from producers who mistreat their hens and dismiss it as “all in a day’s work.”

This week brings another milestone in the movement towards the elimination of battery cages used by egg producers.The Associated Press announced today the demand for eggs has drastically decreased over the past ten years. And while we would like to think animal ethics played a part in the events leading to this significant announcement, it probably has more to do with the bird flu epidemic of 2015 when “…H5N2 virus ravaged chicken farms in Iowa and wiped out 12 percent of the country's egg-laying hens.” (From the AP)

Brian Moscoguiri, an industry analyst at New Jersey-based commodity market research company Urner Barry explains the drop in consumer demand for eggs. "People have found ways to reduce their egg usage as an ingredient. They've found replacers, they've found extenders and they've found ways to make certain products with fewer eggs in general."

So essentiallly, it was either find alternatives, or pay the high prices created by the low production of eggs

An Industry Term

Battery cages are wire cages for egg-laying hens, usually about 18 by 20 inches, each with up to 11 birds inside. A single bird has a wingspan of 32 inches. Cages are stacked in rows on top of each other, so that hundreds of thousands of birds can be housed in a single building. The wire floors are sloped so that the eggs roll out of the cages. Because feeding and watering is sometimes automated, human oversight and contact are minimal. Birds fall out of cages, get stuck between cages, or get their heads or limbs stuck between the bars of their cages, and die because they cannot access food and water. Hens in battery cages live their entire lives never being able to spread their wings.

Yeah, But What About Legal Protections?

There are no federal laws in the United States that regulate the way farmed animals are raised. There is a law that governs humane slaughter, and a law that governs transport of the animals, but neither of these prohibit the use of battery cages.

Individual states have their own animal cruelty statutes and agricultural regulations, but these tend to exempt “routine” or “common” practices. However, at least one state’s judiciary has ruled that such an exemption is invalid. In 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an exception for “routine husbandry practices” was invalid because it was arbitrary and capricious.

Isn’t The Undercover Video Seen By The Public Solid Evidence of Animal Cruelty?

Convicting factory farm workers of animal cruelty is not a fait accompli even when there is undercover video. Prosecutors must prove the cruelty was intentional and willful. Since most state statutes don’t protect farm animals anyway, convictions are rare and occur only when the workers have engaged in an especially egregious act of animal cruelty, such as gratuitously beating or killing the animals. Besides, new ag-gag laws have made obtaining and using such video virtually impossible. North Carolina just passed one this week, in the wake of police shootings.

But What About the “Cage Free” Labels on Egg Cartons?

There]s no legal definition of “cage-free,” and a cage-free hen is not necessarily a free hen running about a pasture. Often, cage-free hens are packed into overcrowded barns, with little or no access to the outdoors.

Aren't The Cage Free Chickens Humanely Treated?

”Cage-free” does not mean the hens are treated humanely. They still have their beaks cut off in a practice called “debeaking,” because it cuts down on the amount of injuries when they fight each other. They may still be given antibiotics. When they are too old to lay eggs at a profitable rate, they are slaughtered for cheap meat. In hatcheries, female chicks are sold to become laying hens, but male chicks are killed by being tossed alive down a funnel-like shoot that leads to a shredder. because they are useless for laying eggs, and  the wrong breed to be profitable meat chickens.

Furthermore, according to Harold Brown, founder of Farm Kind, cage-free chickens have more stress-related hormones in their eggs than eggs from battery hens, because the flock is too big for the chickens to establish a pecking order.

Aside from animal rights principles against raising chickens for eggs or meat, there are still valid animal welfare concerns about the way that cage-free egg-laying hens are treated. While “cage-free” may sound like a good idea, there is still cruelty and slaughter.

Keeping up the pressure on egg-producers has paid off, however. The supermarket chain Publix, the fifth largest in the nation, announced a timeline to stop buying eggs from producers who use battery cages. The announcement brings Publix in line with other major chains including Wal-Mart, Costco, Denny’s and more than 20 other major companies.

Progress in animal rights may be slow, but as long as the movement moves, and the progression continues, animal rights activists cannot give up. A tipping point towards a more compassionate world is just up over the mountain.