While Cage-Free Is Growing, Most Laying Hens In The U.S. Live In Battery Cages
Before factory farming emerged after the second world war, it was common for eggs to be acquired from small family farms, where chickens roamed outdoors freely. Fast forward 70 years later and today, backyard chicken eggs represent a niche market in the massive egg industry. For example, it is now common for a laying hen in the U.S. to live indoors – in a cage about the size of a piece of paper (67 in2). Because they are so restricted in such cages, chickens are unable to spread their wings, clean their feathers, search for food, stretch, exercise, and perform nesting behaviors. Indeed, it is no surprise that they suffer tremendously in such cages, exhibiting social stress (e.g., aggression and feather pecking towards cage mates), weakened and broken bones, foot injuries, and feather loss.
As a result, there has been a push for cage-free eggs by legislators and animal protection groups worldwide, with battery cages being banned or phased out in the European Union and some U.S. states. This pressure has greatly influenced the food sector, too. For example, in the U.S., there are over 400 businesses committed to only having cage-free eggs by 2026. With all of this pressure, are more laying hens actually living in cage-free housing? The Humane League Labs set out to answer this question for laying hens in the U.S.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes survey-reported data from egg farmers to track egg production. These data are published in at least two reports. The first is the Monthly Cage-Free Shell Egg report (published monthly since 2016), which summarizes the number of eggs produced by 100 hens each previous month. The second report is Chickens and Eggs (published monthly since 1933), which reports the percentage of eggs produced daily. After converting any weekly data into monthly data to control for time differences between reports, the Human League was able to obtain monthly average flock size and monthly average flock egg output. With these data, they were then able to generate the monthly proportion of hens living in cage-free housing since 2016. These data were then supplemented with the yearly proportion of cage-free hens since 2007, from another USDA report called Egg Markets Overview.
To summarize, the Human League was able to track the percentage of hens living in cage-free housing yearly from 2007 to 2015, and monthly from September 2016 to June 2019. Their overall finding revealed that, from 2007 until 2019, there was a 17% increase in the proportion of hens who live in cage-free housing. Specifically, 3% of hens lived in cage-free housing in 2007, which increased to approximately 20% by 2019. The Humane League promises to update this report as more USDA data is published.
While this increase in cage-free hens is encouraging, the data confirms that the living situation for most hens is shocking, with 80% still living in battery cages. In contrast, cage-free farms give chickens more space to move in, which also allows them to perform more natural behaviors such as foraging, dust bathing, perching, and ‘comfort’ behaviors (wing-flapping, stretching, and preening).
Nonetheless, cage-free housing systems are not perfect. In such systems, hens are still susceptible to keel bone and footpad disorders. In addition, the killing of male chicks (because they cannot lay eggs and are not used by the industry for meat), the killing of older hens (because they produce fewer eggs), and the painful mutilation of beaks (‘beak trimming’) are still ethical problems present in cage-free systems.
Overall, progress is being made for laying hens – one of the most exploited groups of farm animals. As advocates push towards a cage-free future for chickens in the United States, it appears that the number of eggs coming from cage-free chickens is trending upwards. This is very encouraging, but more advocacy is still needed, and advocates will still need to push to explain why cage-free systems are not the top ideal environment for chicken welfare, despite being less cruel than conventional housing.