Action Alert

Tell United Egg Producers They Need to do More to Help Hens

Chick being debeaked
“You are not handling a lump of plastic. You are handling animals with central nervous systems that feel pain and suffering.”
– Dr. Janice Swanson, animal behavior specialist, Kansas State University, in a speech to the United Egg Producers (Feedstuffs, Jan. 1, 2001, pp. 8, 18: “Consumer views on animal production pushing toward more ethical husbandry”)


Under intense pressure from United Poultry Concerns, the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, and virtually the entire animal protection community in North America, the United Egg Producers (UEP--the egg industry’s primary trade group in the United States.) formed a Scientific Advisory Committee in 1999 to “review current production practices for cage reared laying hens based on scientific knowledge of animal welfare measures.” In his 2001 letter to concerned consumers, UEP president Al Pope says the UEP has adopted its Committee’s recommendations in full and will now begin to implement them. Specifically, “While the recommended changes include every aspect of hens for the production [of] eggs, the primary changes relate to cages by substantially increasing cage space, beak-trimming guidelines to insure a humane process, and a phase out of the current method of forced molting.”

What the UEP proposes to do for “laying” hens in the U.S. is formulated in a glossy 14-page publication, ANIMAL HUSBANDRY GUIDELINES FOR U.S. LAYING FLOCKS, 2000 EDITION. The booklet acknowledges that the egg industry’s current attention to its treatment of hens is based solely on the public pressure it has received, and that recent polls “show that consumers regard the humane treatment of farm animals as important and that their ethical perspectives on animal treatment are continuing to evolve.”


While United Poultry Concerns welcomes and works hard to achieve an alleviation of the absolute misery and abuse to which U.S. laying hens are subjected, we are deeply concerned that the industry’s new Guidelines amount to very little welfare advance, including the fact that no requirements have been established, just “guidelines.” In particular, we point out the following areas of concern:

• Cages and Cage Density Whereas the European Union (EU) announced a Europe-wide ban on battery cages by 2012, the U.S. egg industry shows no plans to phase out battery cages. On the contrary, it has given itself until 2012 merely to increase cage space per individual hen from the standard 48 sq. inches to 67 sq. inches for the smaller white leghorn hens and no more than 86 sq. inches for the larger-sized brown hens. (McDonald’s is requiring 72 sq. inches per hen from its egg suppliers.) The United Egg Producers’ commitment to cages and to a tiny space increase for each caged hen by 2012 does not meet welfare standards.

• Cage Environment Although poultry scientists and welfarists have been arguing for decades what any fool can see, that chickens’ behavioral repertoire and overall health require opportunities to perch, dustbathe, sunbathe, exercise, and socialize normally, and that hens need a quiet secluded place in which to lay their eggs, the Guidelines provide for none of these needs. If it is up to the industry the hens will continue to have nothing to do but to live behaviorally frustrated, physically miserable lives entombed in barren wire. This is unacceptable.

• Excretory Ammonia Concentration and Other Toxic Gas Allowances Caged hen houses, like all modern poultry houses, are loaded with dust and toxic gases including ammonia from the decomposing uric acid in the mountains of manure in these houses, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide. The Guidelines specify that “Ammonia concentration to which the birds are exposed should ideally be less than 25 ppm [parts per million] and should not exceed 50 ppm for a 24 hour” [period], but temporary excesses [?] should not adversely affect bird health.” Studies show, however, that chickens exposed to 20 ppm of ammonia for 42 days develop pulmonary congestion, swelling, and hemorrhage, and that continuous exposure to ammonia thickens arterial walls and shrinks the air capillaries in exposed birds. Ammonia concentration harms birds’ immune systems and increases their susceptibility to infectious diseases and can cause them to go blind. As UPC president Karen Davis can testify, the ammonia concentration in modern hen and poultry houses is unbearable. It burns straight into your eyes and lungs, and makes you sick in your stomach. The Guidelines allowance of 25 - 50 ppm, plus undefined “temporary excesses,” of ammonia gases condemns the hens to continue to live and lay their eggs (which absorb ammonia gases) in a toxic waste environment, inhaling, without relief, poisonous excremental fumes. This is not acceptable. Debeaking Regarding what the industry calls “beak trimming,” the Guidelines merely rehash 3 decades worth of advice to debeaking machine operators about how to debeak newborn and 10-day old chicks so as to reduce mortality and starveouts in the mutilated birds: “The beaks of chicks should be trimmed at 10 days of age or younger with a precision automated cam-activated beak trimmer with a heated blade.” The cruelty of debeaking is evident in the Guidelines’ instructions on how “to facilitate clotting, to alleviate stress, and reduce dehydration.” “The levels of feed and water should be increased until beaks are healed” (so the birds don’t painfully bang their freshly injured beaks against the hard bottom of the feeder or waterer, thus preventing them from trying to eat or drink again, and so dying). “When avoidable, birds should not be subjected to stressful conditions such as handling, moving, vaccination, etc. for two weeks following beak trimming.” All of these instructions, plus the loopholes to accommodate normal industry practices, bear witness to the trauma and pain of “beak trimming.” Furthermore, the Guidelines recommend putting many debeaked birds through the same ordeal again: “If the trimmed beak grows back, a second trim may be needed. A second trimming is more permanent in that the beak does not grow back as easily.”

• Debeaking is a barbaric facial mutilation that cannot possibly be made “humane.” Decades of “partial beak amputation” research have proven this beyond a doubt. The beak is full of nerves to the very tip, and the only reason chickens are debeaked in the first place is to reduce the injuries and mortality that result in fewer eggs when birds whose nature it is to peck at the environment are deprived of an environment in which the birds’ inherent nature makes any sense. In no way can the egg industry’s beak-trimming guidelines be supported.

• Forced Molting Thanks to the groundbreaking and persistent effort of United Poultry Concerns to agitate the animal protection community and the general public about the egg industry’s use of food deprivation to force hens to molt unnaturally (UPC Editor’s Note), “Consumer concerns about agricultural production practices and the impact of these practices on the welfare of the animal have caused producers to reconsider the use of induced molting in laying strains of birds.” Acknowledging that “Welfare problems reside with the methods used to induce the molt, namely feed restriction or deprivation,” and that “Producers and researchers are encouraged to work together to develop alternatives to feed withdrawal for molting, “ the Guidelines show that the egg industry is merely looking for other ways than 2 weeks of total food deprivation to force hens to drop their feathers, temporarily stop laying eggs, then be forced to resume a relentless egg-laying schedule before being sent to the slaughterhouse hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the meantime, egg producers are given the usual instructions on how to starve their hens so as to keep mortality levels compatible with profits and force a 30% loss of body weight in the hen. While over a decade of taxpayer-supported government research shows that force molting by food deprivation impairs hens’ immune systems, predisposing them and their eggs to Salmonella poisoning, the Guidelines lie that “Insufficient research has been conducted to develop a conclusive decision on the impact [forced] molting may contribute to food safety risks.”

Cheap Tricks The egg industry has, at any given time, at least 4 million to 7 million caged hens producing millions of eggs for which there is no market (which is why you see eggs and egg whites listed among the ingredients in processed foods as unlikely as “elite” popsicles, all of which serve as dumping grounds for chronic overproduction). Yet the industry is trying to make animal protectionists feel guilty for opposing force molting by telling us that if they can’t force molt a flock and reuse the survivors, they’ll have to breed millions more birds to maintain flock size and kill millions more male chicks at the hatchery than they already smother to death and grind up alive each year. But as veterinarian Holly Cheever wrote in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (July 1, 2000), speaking on behalf of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR): “The public knows more and more about forced molting. AVAR and United Poultry Concerns have brought it to the public’s attention,” and we will not “be jockeyed into having to respond to the industry by saying, okay, let’s select this evil over that evil.”

• Lighting The harsh, inhumane lighting regime to which commercial laying hens are subjected is a primary reason why their reproductive systems are depleted by the time they are just over a year old, “requiring” a “rest” by being starved in their cages for 2 weeks. The hen’s biology by nature is synchronized with the length of day and the seasons of the year. Egg industry practice disrupts this natural harmony with destructive effects on the hen. In nature, hens start laying eggs in the spring and cease laying eggs in the fall. Egg production is a function of increasing and decreasing length of day, which corresponds to the optimum times of the year for hens to brood, hatch, and raise chicks. Forcing hens to sit for an entire year under artificial lighting that simulates the longest days of summer—15 to 17 hour days—is sheer biological punishment, without any natural counterpart. This punitive lighting arrangement has been causally linked, along with forced molting, to the high prevalence of Salmonella in hens and their eggs because of its harmful effect on the hens’ immune systems. The Guidelines do not address this stressful artificial lighting except to say that inside the buildings, with their grim darkness and continuously burning light bulbs to artificially stimulate egg production, “Lights should be provided to allow effective inspection of all birds.” In reality, however, effective inspection of all birds is not possible in caged layer buildings holding 50,000 to100,000+ birds.

Hell is where “farm fresh” eggs come from. Picture the lively young hen in her strawy warm bowl of a nest with its lovely clutch of eggs and compare that image to this “Guideline”: “Birds should not be exposed to disturbing noises or visual stimuli or strong vibrations, whether originating inside or outside the house. Visitors should not be allowed without proper supervision, because they could cause birds to panic and injure themselves in their rush to escape” from their mental cages.

What Can I Do?
  • Replace eggs and egg products. Purchase UPC’s “everything you need to know” cook booklet, Replacing Eggs. Please see our advertisement in this and every issue of PoultryPress in our merchandise section under BOOKS. Our cookbook Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey has even more great poultryless egg-free recipes.

  • Contact United Egg Producers concerning their “new” Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks. State your views and concerns clearly and concisely.
    Albert E. Pope, President
    United Egg Producers
    1303 Hightower Trail, Suite 200
    Atlanta, GA 30350
    Ph: 770-587-5871; fax: 770-587-0041

  • Educate your community. Every time eggs or “poultry” (dead or alive) are mentioned or promoted in your local newspaper, please write a short informative letter to the editor. Have a pool of activist letter writers. Create and discover ways to tell the truth about eggs and “poultry” (including how nice chickens and turkeys are) to your friends, neighbors, and workplace colleagues: hang wall posters, have a table at community festivals, write letters to the editor, call talk radio shows and TV stations, arrange library displays and video presentations. Information materials, buttons, bumper stickers & posters are listed in our merchandise pages. We have everything you need to make a difference.