Debeaking Video Shows Standard Practice on Free Range Egg Farms

male chicks garbage bags

Male chicks being thrown out like garbage. Photo courtesy of Animal Equality

From Hatchery to Cage

At the hatcheries which supply female chicks to commercial egg farms, small egg farms and backyard hen enthusiasts, male chicks are brutally ground up alive, gassed, electrocuted or suffocated because they are useless to the egg industry, and are not the breed of chicken sold for meat. Female chicks are debeaked at only a few days old, in order to minimize damage caused by pecking one another; compulsive feather pecking is a common stress-related behavior in severely crowded chickens. More than 95% of eggs in the U.S. come from “battery cage” hens— hens confined with anywhere from 5 to 11 other hens in one cage the size of a filing cabinet drawer. Each hen spends her entire 18 to 24 months of life with less than a standard sheet of paper’s worth of space, unable to ever turn around or even stretch her wings. In these maddening conditions, hens will relentlessly peck at one another from stress and anguish, and starving or malnourished hens will even attempt to ingest one another’s feathers in search of nutrients.

A Closer Look at Debeaking

debeaking chickens

“The top beak should be cut back 1/2 to 2/3 for [egg] layers and 1/3 for meat chickens while the bottom beak should be cut 1/4 to 1/3 for layers.” -from Practical Poultry Raising, Peace Corps Manual M11

The debeaking machine depicted in the above promotional video is exactly the same as those used on U.S. farms. Because the video was made as a marketing demo by a company that sells the machines, it provides a good picture of what actually happens to hens during the debeaking process. Debeaking, also known euphemistically as “beak trimming,” is a painful procedure in which 1/3 to 2/3 of each bird’s sensitive beak is seared off with a hot blade, without anesthetic. It is standard practice on egg hen farms, including most farms that sell their eggs under “free range,” “cage-free,” and other “happy hen” labels.

While producers often dismiss the practice of debeaking as harmless, comparing it to clipping our own fingernails, chickens’ beaks are not like human fingernails at all; rather they are like fingertips— loaded with blood vessels, pain receptors, and sensory nerves that facilitate food detection in the wild. In a study entitled “The Bill Tip Organ of the Chicken,” researchers found that the tip of the chicken beak contains more sensory receptors than any other area of the beak, with a high concentration of free nerve endings and specialized sensory structures.

debeaked chick The researchers write: “The large number of mechanoreceptors suggests that, as with many other birds, the chicken has developed these specialized structures in the tip of the beak to provide the necessary fine tactile discrimination to enable them to perform a number of complex oral tasks…[P]artial amputation, however slight, must lead to a considerable loss of sensory input which is reflected in the feeding difficulties shown by the birds after this procedure. [We] have provided evidence of both acute and chronic pain following beak trimming…”

In fact, debeaking is so painful for chickens that some die of shock on the spot; others die of starvation or dehydration because using their beaks is so excruciating, or their mutilations are so disfiguring that they cannot properly grasp and swallow food.

lucinda debeaking

Lucinda, a Free from Harm rescue, has a beak deformity from debeaking. Photo: Melissa Summer Pena

Misleading Egg Labels and Humane-washing

Free from Harm’s sponsored rescue hen Lucinda exhibits a serious beak deformity that is a result of debeaking, or “partial beak amputation.” The vet who first treated Lucinda said that she was on the brink of starvation. What many people don’t realize is that eggs from hens mutilated even worse than Lucinda was are regularly sold under so-called humane, “free range” or “cage-free” labels. Because “humane” labeling terms are not meaningfully defined or enforced, egg suppliers are permitted to manipulate intentional loopholes in animal welfare certification standards. In a recent report, even Trader Joe’s “cage-free” egg suppliers were found to debeak their hens, which means the birds were also living in severely crowded, stressful conditions.

It’s important to realize that humane labeling is often a marketing ploy that preys on consumer willingness to pay more for supposed better treatment of animals. In fact, of the miniscule percentage of eggs that do not come from battery cage farms, most “free-range” and “cage-free” eggs come from hens who spend their entire lives crowded with thousands of other birds in windowless sheds, standing in layers of waste so thick with their own excrement and urine that workers who enter the sheds must wear masks in the stinging, choking, ammonia-laden air.

photo of cage free farm

Under misleading welfare labels, confinement operations like this one sell their eggs as “cage-free.” (photo: Sally Ryan, New York Times)

The birds, of course, are afforded no such protection, and suffer severe flesh and eye burns as well as debilitating respiratory disorders. They also, like their caged counterparts, peck at one another in frustration and despair, so most birds under “free range” and “cage-free” labels are also painfully debeaked. In fact, in addition to egg packages marked “free range” and “cage-free,” the following “humane” egg labels permit and routinely practice debeaking: Certified Organic; Certified Humane; American Humane Certified; Process Verified; Free-Roaming; Food Alliance Certified; and United Egg Producers Certified. For a more detailed explanation of the routine cruelties permitted under these and other animal welfare labels, please read Deciphering Humane Labels and Loopholes.

What Can You Do?

You can help end this cruelty by eliminating eggs from your diet. Buying eggs from small farms is not the answer, nor is raising backyard hens. It’s worth reiterating: the same hatcheries that supply commercial egg farms with female chicks also supply most small farms and backyard chick distributors; in the U.S. alone, these hatcheries brutally kill roughly 250 million male chicks every year. But even supposing one could find some way around this murderous supply chain, it’s important to consider that all egg consumption (like all dairy consumption) perpetuates the idea that it is morally acceptable to use animals, and to exploit female reproductive systems. Consuming eggs from any hens sends a powerful and harmful message: it normalizes the practice of controlling and commodifying female bodies and reproductive processes, and it legitimizes the practice of breeding sentient animals into the world as property, to exploit them for flesh and secretions we have no biological need to consume.

Not only are there plentiful plant-based substitutes for eggs in baking, but it’s easy and delicious to veganize your favorite egg dishes. Our popular Guide to Vegan “Eggs” showcases amazing recipes, with simple instructions on how to make mouth-watering vegan versions of scrambles, omelets, even sunny-side ups with a “No-Yolks” sauce so like the real thing, you won’t believe you’re not eating real eggs.

Debeaking is just the beginning of the nightmare that is life for egg-laying hens. For more information on eggs and the hens who lay them, see our official Eggs page. You can also peruse our entire collection of articles on eggs here.

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About Ashley Capps

Ashley Capps received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book of poems is Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. The recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she works as a writer, editor and researcher specializing in farmed animal welfare and vegan advocacy. Ashley has written for numerous animal rights organizations, and in addition to her ongoing work for Free from Harm, she is a writer and researcher at A Well-Fed World. For more information on her poetry or advocacy writing, please visit her website. She also runs the vegan facebook page Make Compassion Consistent.

23 comments

  1. I won’t be eating eggs again. That’s just as cruel as the meat industry, maybe even more so.

  2. Hey Thanks.
    I have been thinking Cagefree eggs come from hens that need not undergo Debeaking. This article clarified more doubts.

    Debeaking.. ah what a painful lifestyle to live for each hen.

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