United Poultry Concerns June 9, 2005

Hens Will No Longer Be Starved But They Will Still Suffer

A Short History of United Poultry Concerns’ Effort to Eliminate Forced Molting by the U.S. Egg Industry and Why the Fight is Not Over

@2005 By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

Following an intense 13-year animal advocacy campaign launched by United Poultry Concerns (UPC) in 1992, the US egg industry trade group, United Egg Producers, has issued a ban on forcing hens to drop their feathers (molt) by going without food in the practice known as forced molting – “reversing a practice followed for more than 100 years,” according to the agribusiness journal Feedstuffs on May 9, 2005 (Smith).

In the 20th century, US egg producers developed the practice of force-molting hens to produce eggs more cheaply by reducing the cost of feeding the hens. (Feeding animals is the biggest cost of raising them for human food.) By the end of the century 75 percent or more of U.S. egg producers routinely deprived their hens of food once, twice, even three times before sending the dwindling number of survivors to slaughter. During the forced molt, thousands of birds in a single laying house died (and continue to die) of starvation, trauma, disease, and inability to swallow food upon being re-fed. The goal of the procedure was and is to force the birds to lose a quarter or more of their weight in “body fat, feathers, liver tissue, musculature and skeleton” (Bell 1996).

Hens were, and still are, nutrient-deprived to regulate egg prices, reduce the sickly oviduct fat that accumulates in unexercised hens, and “rejuvenate” reproductive organs ravaged by the continuously burning lightbulbs in the houses to which hens’ bodies respond involuntarily by trying to form eggs as if every day were the middle of summer. Commercially, egg producers began force-molting hens in Washington State in 1932 (Hanke).

In 1992, United Poultry Concerns discovered the literature on forced molting at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, and that same year we published “Forced Molting: Starving Hens for Profit” in the Fall issue of our quarterly magazine PoultryPress. At that time force-molting “scientists” led by Don Bell were encouraging egg producers to deprive hens of food from 10 to 14 days (Bell & Kuney).

The following year we found industry literature that described a link between forced molting and Salmonella enteritidis infections in hens and their eggs, whereupon we announced in our Summer 1993 issue of PoultryPress that the “Cruelty and Salmonella are Linked.” At the same time that poultry researchers were telling egg producers to force molt their hens by taking away all their food, U.S. Department of Agriculture studies were showing that force-molted hens “shed significantly higher numbers of SE [Salmonella enteritidis] during the feed removal period than the unmolted group” creating “an actual disease state in the alimentary tract of affected hens” (Holt & Porter).

Determined to get firsthand testimony, in January of 1998 UPC mailed surveys to 100 U.S. egg companies that resulted in several statements signed by company owners and managers that they force-molted their hens by depriving them of food from 4 to 14 days at a time – that is, some companies used a 4-day program, others a 12-day program, others a 14-day program, and so on.

That same year in response to our complaints, we received letters from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) acknowledging both the inhumaneness of withholding food from hens and the link between forced molting by food deprivation and Salmonella enteritidis in hens and their eggs. APHIS administrator Craig A. Reed wrote to UPC: “We understand and share your concerns about the humaneness of this practice as well as the food safety issue.” He added, “The UPC campaign on the forced molting of poultry will help to raise the public consciousness on the issue and create opportunities for action from interested parties.” That is what happened.

Armed with the science, United Poultry Concerns and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights petitioned the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1998 to prohibit the force-molting-induced starvation of hens while conducting a major letter-writing campaign by our members. On August 8, 2000, Feedstuffs announced that “A recent campaign by the activist group United Poultry Concerns generated more than 5,000 cards, letters and signed petitions to the offices of the United Egg Producers in Atlanta, calling for the egg industry to discontinue its practice to force hens to molt” (“UEP plans research”).

The previous year UPC filed a Freedom of Information Act request resulting in 57 pages of documents from USDA’s Farm Animal Well-Being Task Group confirming USDA’s knowledge of, and describing in detail, the systemic and infectious disease-producing effects of force-molting hens by starving them.

With this evidence UPC’s months of urging Washington Post journalist Marc Kaufman to do a story on forced molting resulted in Kaufman’s breakthrough front-page feature article in the Sunday edition of the newspaper on April 30, 2000. “Cracks in the Egg Industry: Criticism Mounts to End Forced Molting Practice” centered on the California bill in 2000 that sought to ban forced molting in the state – “the nation’s first legislation to ban the practice” – while quietly mocking U.S. egg industry diehards who felt “wounded” by the attack on forced molting, because, as one animal scientist who disagreed with the diehards put it, “they don’t feel there’s anything wrong with removing food for 14 days.”

Meanwhile, welfare scientists such as Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph in Ontario, observing that hens being starved in their cages showed “severe frustration,” “extreme hunger,” “debilitation,” “suffering,” and “doubled mortality,” called for an end to the starvation of hens to force them to molt (Duncan & Mench).

Thereupon the egg industry began scrambling for low nutrient “molt diets” to replace a practice that by then was being criticized roundly and broadcast widely. Suddenly the “necessary” and “beneficial” practice of starving hens to “rest” and “fast” the survivors for another round of relentless egg laying could be replaced by something less blatantly, inhumanly cruel.

A Start But Not the End of the Story.

United Poultry Concerns claims a genuine if qualified achievement benefiting millions of hens in having carried through our campaign to eliminate forced molting by food deprivation. Qualified, because the practice of forcing hens to molt artificially to benefit the economics of egg production continues, albeit with wheat middlings, corn combinations and/or other low protein, low calcium components. Qualified, because the more than a century long business of experimental “research” into the withholding of various nutrients from hens continues – one nutrient, one trace element per study at a time versus “control” groups of “fasted” or “full-fed” hens whose responses are represented in terms of graphs, charts, power points, and mathematical symbols.

Instead of being starved to the point of inanition, force-molted hens under the new “animal welfare” regimen receive just enough nutrients to maintain sufficient energy to express their frustration in a situation that transforms every natural behavior into a complicated torment. In nature (the tropical forests in which chickens evolved, continue to thrive, and which they carry genetically inside themselves), or any similar range situation, chickens, being foragers, know how to optimize nutritional balances and satisfy hunger. Confined they have no such options.

As a result, unless they are too moribund by starvation or semi-starvation to move, chickens may seek the nutrients they need by, for example, pulling at each others’ protein-rich feathers. Or given that chickens have been shown to perform an average of 15,000 pecks a day and to spend between 50 percent and 90 percent of their day foraging – exploring the ground with their claws and beaks for bugs, plants and other items of interest, as noted by Dawkins, Harrison, Picard, Webster and others – they may be driven to peck at each other because even “full-fed” chickens are genetically motivated to peck. Indeed, harmful pecking of one another “is never seen among wild chickens,” as McBride, Keeling and other ethologists have pointed out.

Despite these well-established facts about chickens, force-molting experimenters continue to lump the pecking behavior of confined, nutritionally deprived hens under the single term “aggression” (Anderson), as if to suggest that these starving and semi-starving hens are engaged in unprovoked violent attacks on each other. The only beak-related behaviors not labeled “aggression” are the ingesting of the dry mash in the trough in front of the cages, drinking from the nipple drinker, and attempts by the “beak-trimmed” hen to preen herself.

Ingesting mash will never satisfy the pecking instincts of chickens, and can hardly be called pecking. A chicken’s skilled motivation to choose which grains to peck at is frustrated by the fine-ground uniform texture of mash, as Dr. Lesley Rogers, for example, points out. In addition, as well as functioning as an exploratory hand, the beak of a chicken is a manipulative organ. Chickens with intact beaks groom one anothers’ faces delicately, chickens with mutilated beaks do so clumsily creating an appearance of aggression that is really frustration.

But chickens also use their beaks to snap, grab, yank, tear, and bite at things. In addition to hard grains, seeds, and small stones of various textures and sizes, chickens prefer flexible edibles that resist and provide tension with the beak – melons, leaves, worms, cabbages and the like. However, the only things chickens have in the cage that fit this description are one anothers’ flesh and feathers.

As long as chickens have just enough energy (nutrition) to express the patterns of life that define them as chickens, while being deprived of environmental resources that correlate with those patterns of energy, they will suffer. Forced molting, whether by food deprivation or nutrient restriction, bears no resemblance to natural molting to replace old feathers and maintain healthy plumage or to the brooding behavior of a mother hen sitting on her eggs.

Forced molting, by its very nature, does not correlate with animal care or wellbeing. Forced molting is part of a system in which “trouble occurs within flocks of hens when the quality of the total environment is inadequate,” as Ruth Harrison explained 14 years ago in New Scientist. In “the myth of the barn egg,” Harrison, who was then criticizing conditions in the U.K., didn’t even address forced molting (a practice confined largely to the U.S.), yet she made it perfectly clear why even hens uncaged in buildings, or barns, suffer complicated frustrations that result in distorted behaviors when the captive environment does not meet their needs. And she provides a detailed picture of how to improve that environment, which depends on implementing the understanding that “it is not only the quality of the individual components but the relationship between those components that is important” to chickens.


Anderson, K. 2003. Non-feed withdrawal research and performance. American Meat Institute Animal Care and Handling Conference. Kansas City, MO, February 27.


Bell, D. 1996. Moulting Technologies – Welfare Issues October: 1-9.

Bell, D & D R Kuney. 1992. Effect of fasting and post-fast diets on performance in molted flocks. Journal of Applied Poultry Research Vol. 1: 200-206.

Duncan, I J H & J Mench. 2000. Does Hunger Hurt? (Letter). Poultry Science, Vol. 79: 934.

Hanke, O A et al., eds. 1974. American Poultry History 1823-1973. American Poultry Historical Society, 709.

Harrison, R. 1991. The myth of the barn egg. New Scientist November 30: 40-43.

Holt, P S & R E Porter. 1992. Effect of Induced Molting on the Course of Infection and Transmission of Salmonella enteritidis in White Leghorn Hens of Different Ages. Poultry Science Vol. 71: 1842-1848.

Kaufman, M. 2000. Cracks in the Egg Industry: Criticism Mounts to End Forced Molting Practice. Washington Post April 30: A1, A10-A11.

Keeling, L. 2002. Behaviour of fowl and other domesticated birds, in P Jensen, ed. The Ethology of Domestic Animals: an introductory text. CABI, chapter 7. Cited in Turner, 22-23, 41.

McBride, G et al. 1969. The Social Organization and Behaviour of the Feral Domestic Fowl. Animal Behavior Monograph, Vol. 2, No. 3: 127-181. On no fighting seen in the wild see pp. 135 and 158.

Nicol, C & M S Dawkins. 1990. Homes fit for hens. New Scientist March 17: 46-51.

Picard et al. 2002. Visual and tactile cues perceived by chickens, in J M McNab & K N Boorman, eds. Poultry Feedstuffs: Supply, Composition and Nutritive Value. CABI, chapter 15. Cited in Turner, 22-23, 41.

Rogers, L. 1995. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken. CABI, 219.

Smith, R. 2005. UEP to end feed withdrawl [sic]. Feedstuffs May 9: 1, 5.

Turner, J. 2003. Stop-Look-Listen: Recognising the Sentience of Farm Animals. A Report for Compassion in World Farming Trust. Ciwftrust@ciwf.co.uk

UEP plans research about induced molting practice. 2000. Feedstuffs August 8: 9.

Webster, A B. 2002. Behavior of Chickens, in D D Bell & W D Weaver, eds. Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production. Kluwer Academic Publications, 71-86. Cited in Turner, 22-23, 41.

United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org


United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

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