What are battery hens and broiler chickens?
Battery hens and broiler chickens are the terms used to describe poultry raised in "industrial" highly intensive farming environments, for egg production and meat production, respectively.
The vast majority of eggs and chicken meat worldwide and in the UK is produced through such methods, primarily because of the cost efficiency of "factory farming". However, the animal welfare and public health implications of these methods have been a growing cause of concern for the public.
"Factory farming" in the UK is a post-second world war phenomenon. In the immediate aftermath of the war, concerns about food shortages ran high, and self-sufficiency in food production was deemed an important national goal. At the same time, successive governments were keen to keep food prices low so as to assist domestic economic recovery. Low food prices were also necessary to retain export markets, with the emergence of the USA and USSR as the world's agricultural powerhouses.
With cost imperatives driving farmers off the land and causing widespread consolidation of the industry, factory farming developed as the most efficient means of production. The intensification and upscaling of agriculture during the 1960s was supported by government and EEC grants.
In the poultry industry, factory farms or "batteries" were designed to maximise production and minimise costs, through methods including high stocking densities, close control of the availability of food, water and light, selective breeding and medication.
Reacting against this and other "science over nature" trends, the pioneers of the environmental movement in the late 1960s were quick to pick up on the negative aspects of factory farming, with books such as "Silent Spring" and "Animal Machines" generating considerable interest.
In 1979 the government established the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), with the aim of keeping animal welfare standards under continuous review, but it was not until 1986 that the first rules were adopted at the EU level on "hen laying" (Council Directive 86/113/EC, succeeded in 1988 by Directive 88/166/EC).
Strong campaigning against factory farming of poultry, assisted by public examples of obvious mistreatment of animals and food safety scares – the most well-known being the salmonella in eggs scandal – was having an impact by the 1980s. A corollary of this, and of the disappearance of the threat of food shortages, was the rise of free-range farming and more recently organic farming; a return to "old fashioned" and more expensive production methods, that were considered more humane and safe.
A landmark in the history of battery egg farming was Council Directive 1999/74/EC, under which all EU member states were obliged to phase out "battery" cages, and replace them entirely with larger "enriched" cages by 2012. However, in January 2003 the European Commission launched the second stage of infringement proceedings against Austria, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Portugal over their apparent failure to implement the 2002 phase of the Directive.
The state of broiler chickens has been much less publicised, with the majority of the public under the impression that the chickens they eat are "spent" laying hens. Following a long campaign to raise awareness, in 2003, the campaign group Compassion in World Farming took the practices used in broiler farming to Judicial Review, claiming that they were illegal. Mr Justice Newman, presiding, ruled against the organisation, however, stating that there had to be a balance between the needs of animals and intensive farming's commercial interests, and this balance had not infringed legal guidelines.
The issue has been brought to the public's attention through the efforts of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He attempted to raise its profile by challenging Britain's largest supermarket, Tesco, to improve existing standards for chickens reared for eating. Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall asked shareholders at Tesco's annual general meeting to approve the measures in June 2008 but his motion was roundly defeated.
Council Directive 2007/43/CE outlined minimum rules and conditions for the protection of chickens kept for meat production and aimed to reduce the overcrowding of chicken holdings by setting a maximum stocking density of 33kg/m2, or 39kg/m2. Other conditions under the directive related to lighting, litter, feeding, and ventilation requirements.
All Member States were required to transpose the Directive into national legislation and implement it by June 2010.
Meanwhile the 2012 EU ban on battery cage egg production has worried the National Farmers' Union, which warned that the move would be "worse than useless" if the same standards were not applied to imports.
However, following reports that 13 Member States were unlikely to be compliant with the EU directive by 1 January 2012, meaning an estimated 50 million hens would still be housed in battery cages, Defra announced that many retailers and major food suppliers were putting in place "stringent traceability tests" to guarantee they will not supply eggs produced from illegal conventional cages or use them as ingredients in their own brand products.
"It will be difficult for producers who have not complied with the EU directive to find an outlet in the UK," Defra said.
There are two basic objections persistently raised against the intensive farming of poultry: that it neglects animal welfare; and that it endangers food safety. Policy – which has stemmed as with most agricultural matters from the EU – has historically balanced the objections against the economic case for intensive farming, but in recent years has been moving against factory farming.
Opponents of battery farming condemn the conditions that egg laying hens are kept in. Birds are kept in cramped and overcrowded conditions, in which they are unable to perform natural behaviours such as scratching and dust-bathing; they are frequently "debeaked" in order to prevent fighting and self-harm; they are denied darkness and food in order to encourage constant egg-laying; and conditions in sheds can be unhygienic, with hens living amongst dead birds and faeces. Laying hens have also been selectively bred to produce unnaturally large numbers of eggs – up to 330 per year. Studies have shown this breeding to have increased susceptibility to cancer. Unwanted male chicks bred in the laying industry, moreover, are gassed shortly after birth.
Some of these practices are being outlawed under EU law, including debeaking and forced moulting.
Conditions for broilers are marginally better, insofar as they are not raised in cages, but on the ground, but again in cramped, dark and hot sheds. Poor facilities can mean that broilers walk around in their own excreta, causing foot ulcerations and "hock burns" – black marks caused by ammonia that can sometimes be seen on chickens in the shops.
However, the main welfare problem with regard to broilers is the impact of selective breeding on the birds themselves. Broilers reach their slaughter weight in around 40 days, half the time birds took to reach full size 30 years ago. This growth rate puts immense strain on their hearts and lungs, and their legs are frequently unable to support their overgrown bodies.
These conditions have generated food safety threats in the past, most famously in 1988, when the Health Minister Edwina Currie claimed that most eggs were infected with the salmonella bacterium, following a series of outbreaks. In 1999, carcinogenic dioxins were found in poultry feeds at plants in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
More recently, concerns have been voiced about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters. Although hormonal growth promoters are illegal in the UK, it is widely feared that the use of antibiotics may be contributing towards the development of drug-resistant bacteria, with potentially serious consequences for animal and human health.
Those involved in factory farming deny these health concerns as speculative scaremongering or the product of bad practice in an otherwise responsible industry. Supporters of intensive farming emphasise the public's demand for cheap food, and the unwillingness of all but niche consumers to pay the premiums associated with higher welfare standards.
The food industry is highly globalised, moreover, and while many farmers might be willing to change, they face the problem of being undercut by cheaper intensive producers overseas if they accept domestic or even EU-level regulation – with the effect that they go out of business, while the welfare problems persist elsewhere.
While the EU has taken a positive lead on poultry welfare, it faces difficulties in taking this agenda forward at the World Trade Organisation, where many countries interpret animal welfare standards as a form of protectionism.
However, in December 2011, because no European agreement had been reached on enforcing the ban on battery cages, the British government announced that it had instead been working closely with the domestic egg industry, processors, food manufacturers, the food service sector and retailers to reach "a voluntary consensus" not to sell or use battery-farmed eggs and help British consumers to avoid buying them unwittingly.
Agriculture Minister Jim Paice promised that "tough action" would be taken to improve welfare standards for hens and prevent eggs produced in ‘battery cages’ being sold in the UK. “We’re taking action to protect UK consumers and the egg industry by hitting producers who flout the law where it hurts – in their pockets," he said.
The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) are to use ultra violet light to identify batches of eggs not laid in welfare friendly cages.
The UK is largely self sufficient in eggs with 82% of eggs consumed being produced in this country. Of the 18% of egg and egg products being imported, approximately half will be imported as shell egg and half as egg product (liquid or powder).
The UK is the 6th largest egg producer in the EU. In 2010, the UK was home to 33 million laying hens. UK table egg industry worth £561m (2010). UK production 826 million dozen table eggs annually from the following farming methods: 50% cages (conventional or enriched); 42% free range; 8.3% (barn & organic) (2010); Industry estimate the UK market split for 2012 to be 43% enriched cage, 50% free range (of which 3% would be organic) and 4% barn.
Source: Defra – December 2011
"Hens are naturally inquisitive animals with a strong desire to perch, preen themselves, dustbathe, forage and nest.
"Although the design of battery cages changed by law across Europe in 2012, from the barren to the so-called ‘enriched’ battery cage, we are still very concerned that hens can’t carry out all of their important natural behaviours properly in an environment.
"We want to see all laying hens kept in well-managed free-range or barn systems instead."
RSPCA – 2012
“It is unacceptable that after the ban on battery cages comes into effect, around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions. We have all had plenty of time to make these changes, but 13 EU nations have not done so.
"The UK egg industry alone has spent £400million ensuring hens live in better conditions. It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law.
“British shoppers should be reassured that as long as they buy food containing eggs from those companies who have guaranteed not to use or sell eggs from battery cages, they will be supporting higher welfare standards and British egg producers.”
Agriculture Minister Jim Paice – December 2011
"The only way intensive farming will stop is if people cease to encourage the market for it."
Animal Defenders International (ADI) – 2012