Starving Hens For Profit
Has Got to Stop

by Karen Davis, Ph.D. and Nedim Buyukmihci, V.M.D.

Recently a woman described the shock she experienced while touring an egg factory in Pennsylvania. When the lights were switched on in one of the blacked-out houses, the voices of the hens inside "rose to a cacophony, accompanied by the sound of thousands of beaks pecking on metal. The hens stuck their heads in and out of the cages, pecking at the feed trays, which were empty." The manager explained that this was the first day of a seven-day "fast." The hens were upset because they expected to be fed; by the end of seven days they would be quieter. After losing up to 30 percent of their bodyweight, denuded of feathers, starved, and deranged by fear, they would be stupefied or dead.

If the average person decided to withhold food from their dog or cat for days or weeks, that person would probably be charged with cruelty to animals and the news media would take the story and run with it. Yet, each year the egg industry intentionally deprives millions of hens of food for up to ten days. But the cameras aren't rolling on the hens' behalf and no one is going to jail. This speaks volumes about the way our society views animals used for food. These animals are unprotected against the cruelest practices. Only consider that 98 percent of hens used in egg production in the United States are painfully debeaked and crammed into cages so small they can't assume a single normal body posture.

The practice of starving hens for profit is known as forced-molting. Molting literally refers to the replacement of old feathers by new ones. In nature, birds replace all their feathers in the course of a year to maintain good plumage at all times. A natural molt often happens at the onset of winter, when nature discourages the hatching of chicks. The hen stops laying eggs and concentrates her energies on staying warm and growing new feathers.

The egg industry exploits this natural process by forcing an entire flock to molt simultaneously. This is done to manipulate the marketplace and to pump a few hundred more eggs out of exhausted hens when it is deemed cheaper to "recycle" them rather than immediately slaughter them after a year of relentless egg- laying on a calcium-deficient diet.

To trigger the physiological shock of the forced molt, a University of California poultry researcher (Donald Bell) recommends the removal of all food for no less than five days and as long as fourteen days. Survivors may be force-molted two or three times, based on economics. At any given time over 6 million hens in the U.S. are being systematically starved in their cages, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dr. Peter Dun, an animal scientist from Scotland, said hens are force molted in the United States "until their combs turn blue."

Forced molting should be banned in this country as was done in Great Britain in 1987. In addition to being cruel and immoral, it causes disease. Forced molting is a major cause of Salmonella poisoning. According to a 1992 report in Poultry Science, forced molting in combination with a Salmonella infection created an actual disease state in the alimentary tract of tested hens. Prolonged food deprivation wrecks the hens' immune system, making them prey to the poisonous bacteria that infest the packed confinement buildings in which they lay their eggs.

Currently, there is not a single federal law in the United States to protect poultry from the most outrageous forms of abuse. For this reason, two nonprofit animal advocacy organizations, United Poultry Concerns and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, have developed a petition urging the egg industry to take immediate steps to eliminate the cruel practice of forced molting. To date, the industry relies on the notion that Americans couldn't care less how a farm animal is treated. Public pressure is crucial. Readers wishing to receive more information, including a copy of the petition to stop the forced molting of laying hens, are encouraged to write to United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405-0150 (www.upc-online.org); and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, PO Box 208, Davis, CA 95617 (www.avar.org).

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