Today, to mark World Egg Day, we at Viva! descended onto the London tube to ask commuters, if they are tired of being packed in on their daily commute, to consider the plight of millions of laying hens in Britain who, four years on from the 'battery' cage ban, are still living in crammed, cruel conditions. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, for their entire 'productive' lives.
We wore eye-catching chicken masks during the high-speed action and showed images of hens on what are, sadly, bog-standard, laying hen farms. The innovative London action kick-started a nationwide Weekend of Action in which local volunteers will take part.
These initiatives all form part of our newly launched 'Cracked' campaign, which aims to shine the spotlight on an industry that has, until now, been relatively hidden from public scrutiny. In 2010, Viva! exposed the horrors taking place inside UK hatcheries. Namely, the killing of around 40 million baby male chicks a year. This raised awareness on one part of the egg industry. The plight of the laying hen however - said to be one of the world's most abused farmed animals - has largely been forgotten.
We suspect that not many people realise this, but four years on from the banning of the 'battery' cage in Europe, around 18 million hens remain incarcerated in cruel wire mesh cages across Britain, only this time with up to 80 other birds. There are, we have found, some serious and widespread health and welfare problems for hens in these so-called 'enriched' cages.
In appearance, the enriched cage is strikingly similar to the battery cage. With only a postcard-extra space for each hen, and furnishings which look nothing like you'd expect from, for example, a 'nest box'.
At enriched cage farms supplying major supermarkets, thousands of birds are incarcerated and stacked in filthy cages. A laying hen may be weak from laying so many eggs, as she may now produce over 300 eggs a year. Her high productivity and fast growth can result in abnormal skeletal formation and osteoporosis, rendering bones fragile and prone to fractures. Severe osteoporosis may lead to collapse of spinal bone and paralysis. The hen may therefore be unable to get up and escape being pecked by others. She may be suffering with leg and foot problems from standing on sloping wire mesh all day. It is incredulous that, in this day and age, we are still housing farmed animals in cages, and forcing them to spend most of their lives standing on injurious wire.
Feather loss is a widespread epidemic across laying hen farms in Britain. It can be severe, often exposing red raw skin underneath, and it has several causes. Poor health, stress, lack of water and food, parasites, and damage caused by other birds may be factors. One thing for sure, is that it is indicative of poor management and welfare.
All of this is a far cry from what the public would expect from standards on British farms. And ironically, the vast majority of eggs in Britain are stamped with the 'British Lion Mark' seal of approval.
Viva! founder and director, Juliet Gellatley, visited an enriched cage farm earlier this year, so she could offer the British public a first-hand account. She said:
"I entered a vast building into a wall of computerised controls and with trepidation stepped up metal stairs into a nightmare. There were numerous long, thin gangways that threaded through three tiers of cages. Each cage was filled with about 40 hens - many ill, some dying or dead. I remember thinking this must be one of the biggest marketing cons ever. Yes, the battery cage has gone but over half of British eggs come from hens kept in... bigger cages with more chickens! It is misery replaced with misery, pain with pain, death with more death.
I saw birds huddled together on 'perches' and walking across gridded metal floors. Some were lying hunched in corners, their lack of feathers exposing the red raw skin underneath. One had lost every feather on her pathetic, fragile body. Many had disfigured beaks and pale combs drooping over their faces. The pain and misery felt by these individuals was, to me, as clear as day, and I wondered how nobody else at the farm could see it. Or, if they did, how could they live with themselves?"
We now know that major egg companies - selling millions of eggs each week to major supermarkets and local retailers - are housing hens in abominable and cruel conditions. Not just on enriched cage units, but also on free-range farms. Yet despite Viva! reporting several large-scale egg farms last year, we recently discovered that not a single egg farm or company was prosecuted for animal cruelty that same year.
Mounting public pressure against the caging of hens has meant a recent surge in cage-free pledges by supermarket giants such as Tesco, ALDI, ASDA, Morrisons and Iceland. You can read our blog on this at www.viva.org.uk/blog/tesco-latest-supermarket-ditch-hen-cages. You will learn that bans will not come into force for another nine years. Viva!'s investigation work reveals nine years to be too long. Also that buying free-range is not the answer. We hold that this part of the industry, in particular, is a carefully constructed lie. The sad reality is, many of these birds are unlikely to ever see the sunlight or walk on grass.
Competition and a high demand has led to falling egg prices and farmers housing larger flocks to yield an even greater output of eggs. Free range egg production looks set to take up an even bigger chunk of the industry over coming years also with more companies switching to cage-free. Today, European legislation permits flocks up to 2,500 birds per hectare.
Unfortunately, free range hens are often free ranging in name only. Chickens in the wild would typically live in small flocks, yet on some free range farms flocks run into many thousands. Feather pecking can result in hens suffering extensive feather loss. They may never step outside the shed, and the shed floors may largely be gridded metal. Even without the cage, the overcrowding, confinement, injuries, frustrations and death clearly remain.
Today's stunt on the London tube for World Egg Day provided us with an opportunity to remind commuters that, four years on from the battery cage ban, millions of laying hens continue to be trapped in dark, filthy, windowless sheds. And 18 million of them still in barren, wire cages. Our work for laying hens means they finally get the centre-stage.
Our message is loud and clear. That Britain's egg industry is cracked and we urge people to not support it by going vegan.