Laying hens inside tiny cages

The Dark Side of the Egg Industry

FOUR PAWS reveals the cruel practices of the industry and calls for an end of cage keeping


Vienna, 25 March 2024 – While colourful Easter eggs brighten up the holidays for many at this time of the year, conditions for laying hens are everything but “egg”-xiting all year round. Broken bones, trimmed beaks and even cannibalism: egg consumption comes at a high price for laying hens, most of whom are kept in cages, confined to a space of the size of an A4 paper. Yet the hunger for eggs is big: in the European Union annual consumption has even reached more than 200 eggs per capita. More than 350 million laying hens in the European Union are 'producing' close to 6.7 million tonnes of eggs each year. To improve the lives of billions of chickens worldwide, global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS calls for an end of the cage age and calls on consumers to reduce, refine and replace animal-based products, like eggs.

“When eating their breakfast egg, people often forget that billions of chickens are suffering from the cruelties of the egg industry. Consumers can make a difference for animal welfare by making a conscious and animal-friendly diet decision,”

Corinna Reinisch, Farm Animal Welfare Campaigner at FOUR PAWS

Breaking bones – the high costs of high performance

“The growing demand of the egg industry is literally breaking laying hens, leading to painful fractures as their bones brittle from within,” explains Reinisch. As the calcium for the eggshells stems from the hen’s own body, the majority of laying hens suffer from osteoporosis, caused by high performance breeding. Today an individual hen is 'producing' 300 eggs per year on average, as opposed to 180 eggs in the 70s. A study from the University of Copenhagen shows that more than 85% of laying hens are suffering from keel bone fractures. To improve the situation for laying hens, FOUR PAWS urges the European Union to include breeding issues in EU legislation on animal welfare.

A short and cruel life

Despite their natural life expectancy of 15 years, laying hens rarely outlive 20 months, as they get disposed by the egg industry once their laying performance decreases. The same sad fate awaits male chicks, who are worthless to the egg industry and are killed after their birth. In the European Union alone, more than 330 million one-day-old male chicks get killed every year. FOUR PAWS calls for an end of killing male chicks.

Cannibalism & feather pecking: fighting for limited space

Chickens are very active animals and therefore require much space. To follow their natural behaviour, they should live in small groups and be provided with quiet and separate places in barns, easily accessible nests, areas where they can peck for food, dustbathing options and outdoor access. Sadly, reality looks much different for the majority of laying hens. Most are kept in cramped and dirty cages, spending their short lives in inhumane conditions without daylight and standing on wire mesh floors. Many caged laying hens have to fight over the little space that they have, resorting to feather pecking and even cannibalism. To reduce injuries, many laying hens get their beak trimmed without anesthesia, which is very painful, as the beak is the most sensitive body part of chickens and can be compared to human fingertips.

End the Cage Age

Many consumers oppose the cruel practice of cage keeping. In the European Union 1.4 million citizens signed the “End the Cage Age” European Citizens’ Initiative in 2020, which asked for a general ban on all caged farming and to move towards cage free solutions.  

“We must end the cage age now. Europeans have made it crystal clear that they want to see an end to these cruel keeping conditions. It is high time for the Commission to act upon the electorate’s will and improve the welfare of chickens and other farm animals,” says Reinisch. Despite the European Commission’s initial commitment to propose legislation to ban cages by the end of 2023, this has not been initiated. This issue has also been brought before the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, as the Citizens’ Committee of the successful End the Cage Age European Citizens’ Initiative has recently started legal action against the European Commission over its failure to deliver its commitment to ban caged farming. FOUR PAWS is backing this claim.

Guidelines for consumers: How to avoid the bad eggs

In the European Union consumers can identify the keeping form by the first digit on the egg stamp: 0 stands for organic farming, 1 for free range, 2 signifying barn housing, 3 labelling cage keeping. The majority of laying hens in the EU are kept in cages (40%), followed by barn housing (38%), where up to 6,000 laying hens may be kept in one hall (nine hens per square meter), causing crowd-induced stress. Roughly 15% of laying hens in the European Union are kept in free range, where the conditions in the barn correspond to those in barn housing but chickens have at least 4 m² of exploration space per animal during the day. Almost one third of laying hens (28%) in the EU are kept in organic farming, where each chicken has at least 4 m² of exercise space and the maximum number of chickens in the stable is reduced.

FOUR PAWS calls on consumers to make a difference with their daily buying decision by:

  • Reducing, refining and replacing animal products in their diet.
  • Opting for organic or free-range eggs, when continuing to consume eggs.
  • Checking the stamp on the egg for the keeping form, to avoid being misled by terms such as 'small group housing', 'farmer eggs' or 'country eggs'.
  • Paying attention to the ingredients in processed products and opting for egg-free or organic products.
  • Asking manufacturers of processed products with eggs what type of husbandry those eggs came from.
  • Asking in restaurants where the eggs in the dishes come from.
Laying hens inside a laying battery

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Vera Mair PR International Officer

Vera Mair 

PR International Officer

+43 (0) 664 409 05 16

VIER PFOTEN International 
Linke Wienzeile 236
1150 Vienna, Austria

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FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, farm animals and wild animals – such as bears, big cats and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones. With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions.

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