Laying Hens

So-called 'enriched cages' were introduced as an alternative to battery or barren cages.

But they do not represent a kinder solution to conventional cages 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, 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 for which they are strongly motivated, 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.

Good practices in perch and nest box design can have very positive effects on laying hen health and welfare. 

Evidence has shown that hens greatly benefit from access to well-managed outdoor runs or covered verandas and that enrichments that stimulate natural behaviours can help avoid mutilations.

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. 

THERE ARE MORE THAN

400 million

LAYING HENS IN THE EU

EGGS FROM CAGED SYSTEMS STILL MAKE UP

53%

OF EU PRODUCTION

IN A UK SURVEY,

74%

OF RESPONDENTS THOUGHT HENS IN FREE-RANGE SYSTEMS ARE 'HAPPIER'

WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

A study in Poland in 2017 concluded that consumers have a strong preference for systems providing laying hens with outdoor access. Similarly, a survey 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 to ensure high animal welfare.

As consumers become more aware of the poor welfare resulting from caged production, caged eggs are becoming increasingly unpopular. Following the introduction of 2008’s egg labelling scheme, the overall number of egg-laying hens kept in alternative, non-cage systems steadily increased in the EU. Nevertheless, by the end of 2018, eggs from caged systems still made up 53% of EU production. 

Launched in September 2018 by Compassion in World Farming and more than 160 other animal welfare and environmental organisations, the EndTheCageAge European Citizens’ Initiative was one of the most successful ECIs ever. A total of 1,617,405 citizens signed to make cages history for farmed animals. An ECI must collect at least one million signatures from EU citizens across one quarter of the Member States before being eligible to formally request the EC to enact legislation.

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

The EU’s Laying Hen Directive (Council Directive 1999/74/EC) introduced a ban on conventional battery cages, while still allowing the use of ‘enriched’ cages. Currently  about half of the EU’s 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 by Member State, with some having heavily invested in these systems, and others having moved more decisively towards cage-free systems. The EU’s top five producers of caged laying hens in 2017 were Spain, Poland, France, Italy and the UK. By contrast, enriched cages are prohibited in Luxembourg, and in Austria a total ban came into force in 2020. In Germany enriched cages will be banned from 2025, or from 2028 via special derogation. 

A pilot project starting now in the European Parliament, ‘Best practices for transitioning to higher welfare cage-free egg production systems’, will give recommendations to help egg producers safeguard their economic future while responding to consumers' demand for higher animal welfare by transitioning towards alternative systems.

We would like to see the EC commit to revising the Laying Hen Directive to enact a ban of any kind of cages for laying hens and parent birds in favour of alternative systems (barn, free-range and organic) to ensure more humane egg production

With our members, we have developed a set of science-based asks for higher welfare barn egg production called the ‘Eurogroup for Animals’ hens asks’. We want to position the animal advocacy movement as a reference for the industry and policymakers in driving a shift towards cage-free systems that have animal welfare at their core.

As a means to end the culling of day-old male chicks, Eurogroup for Animals is monitoring and supporting the implementation of egg-sexing techniques. 

We will also lobby the European Union to prevent the access of caged eggs into the EU market via trade agreements.