FarmFacts: IRISH EGG-LAYING HENS AND EGG LABELLING
What does Compassion in World Farming - Ireland want?
Compassion in World Farming is opposed to the use of cages for laying hens. We believe that egg producers should
change to free-range systems or humane indoor barn systems, where the birds
are not kept in cages. We want the laying hen industry in Ireland to be cage-free.
Information regarding the sale of eggs after the EU ban on barren battery cages came into effect on 1st January 2012
In the EU, barren battery cages for laying hens became illegal from 1st January 2012; a new type of cage, called an 'enriched' cage, remains legal.
It is now illegal for any supermarket or shop in the EU to sell shell eggs (i.e. whole eggs in their shells) produced in the EU by hens in barren battery cages. This means that shell eggs produced and sold in the EU, and labelled as 'Eggs from caged hens', must be from hens in 'enriched' cages.
Barren battery cages are still legal in non-EU countries. There is no ban on the import into the EU of eggs produced in non-EU countries by hens in barren battery cages. However, packs of such eggs must state the country of origin and must describe the farming method as 'non-EC standard'. In practice, imports would mainly be in the form of egg product (liquid egg or dried egg) to be used in ready-meals, cakes etc.
If food has egg as an ingredient (e.g. ready-meals, cakes, etc.), we would advise people to look for 'free-range egg', 'organic egg' or 'barn egg' on the ingredients list. If the ingredients list does not specify this, then the egg could be from hens in barren battery cages in a non-EU country or it could even be from hens in illegal barren battery cages in the EU.
We are urging all supermarkets and food producers to check the source of the eggs used as ingredients in ready-meals, cakes etc, to ensure that none of these are from hens in barren battery cages.
We also urge consumers, when buying shell eggs, to chose free-range, organic or barn eggs and to avoid eggs from hens kept in 'enriched' cages.
Laying hens produce the eggs that we buy, either as boxes of eggs or in made-up products such as cakes, biscuits,
The barren battery cage was commonly used to rear laying hens in Ireland and other EU countries, as well as outside the EU.
In barren battery cages, hens spend their entire productive life confined in small, cages where they cannot
carry out their natural behaviours or freely move around. Barren battery cages are inhumane.
Due to campaigning by Compassion in World Farming and other animal welfare
organisations, the barren battery cage became illegal in all EU countries from 1st January 2012. This is a very welcome animal welfare
However, a new type of cage called an 'enriched' cage remains legal in the EU (and outside the EU).
Although enriched cages offer some improvements, they still provide laying hens with very limited space and restrict their
movement and ability to carry out their natural behaviours.
We want to see the egg industry move to non-cage systems, such as free-range or barn systems.
With regard to egg labelling, Compassion in World Farming welcomes the EU requirement for all boxes and packs of eggs
to be labelled to show, amongst other things, the method of production. This requirement is now in force in all
EU countries, including Ireland.
About laying hens
The ancestors of our modern hens are thought to be the red jungle fowl that live in the forests of India and South-East
Asia. Domestic hens first appeared in China around 1400 BC. Naturally, hens would make a nest and lay and incubate
one or two clutches of eggs a year. When the chicks hatch, the hen would protect her young in their first few weeks of
life. Today's commercial hens lay more than 250 eggs per year on average.
How many laying hens are there in cages in Ireland?
Figures from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for 2010 showed there were slightly more than 2.2 million
egg-laying hens in the Republic of Ireland. At that time, just over half of these were kept in barren battery cages; the rest were
in alternative systems, mainly free-range. In the year coming up to the ban on barren battery cages, many battery cage farmers
changed over to 'enriched' cages. At the time the ban on barren battery cages came into effect, on 1st January 2012,
a small number of hen farmers in the Republic of Ireland still had hens in barren battery cages, according to media reports.
When did barren battery cages become illegal?
From 1st January 2012, it became illegal to keep laying hens in barren battery cages in
all EU Member States, including Ireland.
What are barren battery cages?
Barren battery cages (see photo, right) have a sloping wire mesh floor. Each cage usually holds 4 birds.
The floor space per hen is a minimum of 550 cm². The cage is too small
for a hen to fully stretch out her wings and is only just high enough for the hens to stand upright.
In these cramped, barren conditions, hens cannot carry out their natural behaviours, such as
perching, dust-bathing, foraging, walking, nest-building.
Hens kept in barren battery cages often suffer from weak bones (osteoporosis). The main cause
of this is acknowledged to be lack of exercise.
Typically, the cages are arranged in rows (or batteries) 3 to 6 tiers high inside huge, windowless
sheds that hold thousands of birds. Feeding is automatic,the food being carried along on a conveyor belt in front of
What are 'enriched' cages?
Egg producers have developed a different type of cage for laying hens, called the 'enriched' cage (see photo, left).
This has a small perch, a scratching area with litter, a nest, and claw-sharpening devices. The enriched cage
is slightly higher than the barren battery cage and provides slightly more space per hen.
Enriched cages come in a range of sizes: smaller ones may have less than 10 birds; larger versions (called
'colony cages') may house up to 60 or more birds.
The enriched cage (or colony cage) is legal after barren battery cages are banned.
Enriched cages provide some improvement compared to barren battery cages, including some extra floor-space per
bird and some additional facilities in the cage. However, they are still overcrowded and restrict the birds'
movement, preventing natural behaviours.
Compassion in World Farming believes that a well-run, well-managed free-range or indoor barn system is much
preferable on animal welfare terms. We want to see an end to cages for laying hens, and would like Ireland's egg industry to
How long are the hens kept in cages?
Hens are put into the cages when they are around 18 weeks old, just before they start laying eggs. After about a year,
the hens lay fewer eggs. On most farms they will then be removed from the cages and taken to be slaughtered at a
slaughterhouse. Their meat may be used in soup, chicken paste and pet food.
What are the alternatives to cages?
Laying hens can be successfully kept in semi-intensive systems known as percheries or barn systems and,
of course, the free-range system. Compassion in World Farming believes that well-run and well-managed free-range systems offer hens a life where
they can behave reasonably naturally, and therefore are a good alternative to cages. Well-designed and well-run
indoor barn and perchery systems also can offer a good welfare standard, even though the birds in these systems do not
have access to outdoors.
What are barn or perchery systems?
There are very few barn or perchery systems in
the the Republic of Ireland at present.
In these systems, the birds are kept inside large sheds with litter on the floor (usually wood shavings or wood shavings
and straw). Percheries provide several tiers of perches. Nest boxes are provided and there may be natural light.
The systems vary and some can be very crowded. However, well-designed and well-managed barn and perchery systems offer
a good alternative to cage systems.
Eggs from these systems are sold as 'Barn Eggs'.
What is free-range?
Free-range systems provide hens with a large barn-type shed which has openings onto an outside
area covered in vegetation, allowing the birds free access to this area during the day. Conditions can be very good for
the birds if the system is well-designed and well-run.
Systems are best that do not have too many hens in a single flock. One type of free-range system that is good is
where a number of small moveable houses are used, with each house holding around 100 birds.
Free-range hens can behave naturally; they can scratch and peck at the ground, stretch and flap their wings,
The eggs are sold as 'Free range eggs'.
In systems where the free-range hens are fed on a natural diet and certain other standards are met, the eggs
are called 'Organic'.
Commercial hens may resort to pecking at each other's feathers. This behaviour should be addressed by improving
their environment, or changing the breed of bird as some breeds are more prone to feather-pecking. However, on most farms,
the hens have part of their beaks removed to stop them from feather-pecking. This may be done using a red hot
metal blade - a painful process. In systems that provide for the welfare of hens, beak-trimming should not be necessary.
What happens to male chicks?
Obviously the males do not lay eggs and they are not considered to be the right breed for meat (as they don't put weight
on quickly enough). EU slaughter legislation allows these day-old chicks to be killed by gassing or by a mechanical
apparatus (e.g. a machine with rapidly rotating killing blades).
Compassion in World Farming welcomes EU legislation that has brought about clearer labelling of eggs. Individual
eggs and boxes/packs of eggs must now carry a label that includes information showing how the hens were reared. The
label on the box or pack of eggs must be on the outside.
Eggs from hens in enriched cages
must be labelled as 'Eggs from caged hens'. Other egg labels are 'Free range eggs', 'Barn eggs' and
'Organic'. All egg boxes MUST have one of these four labels on the outside.
The labels saying 'Eggs from caged hens' are often in very small lettering and hard to see. We believe
improvements in labelling are still needed.
What you can do to help hens?
Encourage your family and friends to always buy non-cage eggs. Check on the box that the label clearly says either
'Free-range eggs', 'Organic eggs' or 'barn eggs'.
When buying ready-made products that contain eggs, such as cakes, biscuits, ready-meals, etc., check the label to see
if the product is made with free-range eggs, organic eggs or barn eggs. If the label does not specifically show this, then it
is likely that these are cage eggs.
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