Better lives for laying hens

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.

eggs
Colleen McGarry chicks

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.

400million

LAYING HENS IN THE EU

53%

EU PRODUCTION COMES FROM CAGED SYSTEMS

74%

UK RESPONDENTS THINK HENS IN FREE RANGE SYSTEMS ARE HAPPIER 

WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

A 2016 survey conducted by the EU on the attitudes of European citizens towards animal welfare (Special Eurobarometer 442) indicates that 94% of Europeans regard as important the protection of farmed animals. A 2017 Polish  study  that consumers clearly differentiate between barn versus free-range farming systems and have a strong preference for systems providing outdoor access to laying hens. Similarly, a survey carried out in the UK indicated that according to consumers, hens in free-range systems are “happier” (74.2%), and outdoor access and fresh air are the most important factors to ensure high animal welfare standards.

As consumers become more aware of the poor welfare resulting from caged production, caged eggs are becoming increasingly unpopular. Following the introduction of the 2008 egg labelling scheme, the overall number of egg-laying hens kept in alternative, non-cage systems steadily increased in the EU. However, as too many hens are still raised in cages, in 2018 Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) in partnership with Eurogroup for Animals 1, launched the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) EndTheCageAge. The initiative was supported by 170 other animal welfare and environmental EU organisations and it was one of the most successful ECIs ever. A total of 1,397,113 citizens signed to make cages history for farmed animals. 

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

The EU’s Laying Hen Directive (Council Directive 1999/74/EC), which entered into force in August 1999, introduced a ban on conventional battery cages, while still allowing the use of ‘enriched’ cages. Currently  about half of the EU’s almost 366 million laying hens are still kept in ‘enriched’ cages. Additionally, laying hen legislation does not cover flocks with fewer than 350 hens, pullets (young hens before they start laying), breeding flocks or other species of poultry.

The use of enriched cages varies per EU Member State, with some having heavily invested in these systems, and others that have moved more decisively towards cage-free systems. Currently the EU’s top five producers of eggs are Germany, Poland, France, Spain, and Italy, with Poland and France keeping around 80% of their hens in cages, and Spain and Italy around 50%.  By contrast, in Germany enriched cages will be banned from 2025, or from 2028 via special derogation. Luxembourg and Austria have already  prohibited their use. In 2023 the EC will release the results of the pilot project ‘Best practices for transitioning to higher welfare cage-free egg production systems’, looking  into higher-welfare alternative systems for laying hens and identifying those that are optimal for animal health and welfare. Its recommendations will help egg producers safeguard their economic future while responding to consumers' demand for higher animal welfare by transitioning towards alternative systems.