Introduced as an alternative to battery or barren cages, enriched cages do not represent a kinder solution to conventional cages in terms of animal welfare for more than 210 million laying hens in the EU.
When the EU adopted its ban on battery cages for laying hens, driven by consumer demand and evolving societal expectations, the egg industry replaced ‘conventional’ cages with another type of cage, the so-called ‘enriched’ cage. The industry’s claim was that cages are necessary to protect hens from predators, natural elements and disease; however, the most important driver for keeping hens caged is to optimise space and profits.
Enriched cages provide a nest, perches and some form of scratching substrate. However, these cages still severely limit the hens’ ability to carry out natural behaviours such as dust-bathing, foraging, proper nesting, and resting undisturbed.
Any cage system also implies greater numbers of animals being kept in close confinement, leading to increased risk of disease, so high quantities of antibiotics and other drugs are administered to the animals.
Eurogroup for Animals collected evidence showing that hens greatly benefit from access to well-managed outdoor runs or covered verandas and that enrichments stimulating natural behaviours can help avoid mutilations. Good practices in perch and nest box design can have very positive effects on laying hen health and welfare.
Another issue that requires urgent solutions is the fate of day-old male chicks. For the egg industry, male chicks do not have any value as they cannot lay eggs, so they are routinely culled at one day old either by gassing or maceration.
The issue has been addressed at national level by the German Government which approved a ban on chick culling of one-day-old male chicks by end of 2022, and the in-ovo sexing of chick embryos after the sixth day of incubation until end of 2023.
Isolated actions have also been undertaken by food businesses, which are becoming more sensitive to this practice, however, a EU legislative ban is needed to spare these animals from unnecessary suffering.