Frequently asked questions

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Egg facts

Why should people care about what eggs they are eating?

The RSPCA believes you can eat eggs and still care about the welfare of the hen that provided it. These animals are living, feeling creatures, capable of experiencing fear, pain and distress.

We think all animals should be treated humanely, whether they're animals we eat, farm or live with as companions, including layer hens.

Where do eggs come from?

Australia's eggs come from layer hens that are housed in a cage, barn or free-range system. Hens are bred to produce as many eggs as possible during their relatively short lives. It's the eggs these hens produce that are sold in supermarkets or used by restaurants and food manufacturers in many of the foods we eat.

Do cage-free eggs taste better than cage eggs?

While there's no scientific evidence to prove that eggs from different systems taste better, lots of chefs, foodies and cage-free supporters comment that cage-free eggs make a better dish and do taste better. In addition to this, just knowing that you're caring for the welfare of hens would surely make cage-free eggs taste better!

Why are some egg yolks brighter than others?

Yolk colour is influenced by the level of substances called carotenoids (preliminary forms of vitamin A) in a hen's diet. These substances have yellow and red pigmentation. Some of these carotenoids will be converted to vitamin A and used by the hen herself, whereas others will be stored in egg yolk where they not only contribute to yolk colour, but also have anti-oxidant properties and thus help to stabilise the vitamins contained within the yolk.

A diet lacking carotenoids will produce a colourless yolk. Natural forms of carotenoids (including lutein and zeaxanthin) can be found in feed such as corn, lucerne, and grass, however these levels can fluctuate. In order to ensure consistent yolk colouration, producers may add additional yellow and red carotenoids (such as apoester and canthaxanthin). Yolk colour does not affect the nutritional value of the egg, and is not influenced by the type of production system in which an egg is produced.

Why is there sometimes a red blood spot on the egg yolk?

The red spot sometimes found in eggs is also called a 'meat spot'. This spot is caused by a rupture of a blood vessel on the yolk surface during the egg's formation. As the egg ages, the yolk takes up water from the albumen to dilute the blood spot, so in actuality, if you see a blood spot, you know it's a very fresh egg, so you can still eat it.

What is a double yolk?

A double yolk is an egg which has two yolks.

In normal situations, an egg is formed through development and release of a single ovum (yolk sac) from a hen's ovary, which then travels down the oviduct. Once in the oviduct, albumin (egg white) and shell are deposited around the yolk to form a complete egg.

Double yolking occurs when two ova are released at the same time into the oviduct, and will become encased in albumin and shell together. This is more common in young birds, when their reproductive cycles are not yet completely synchronised.

Layer hens

How many layer hens are there in Australia?

There are approximately 16.9 million* layer hens in Australia.

How many eggs are produced in Australia each year?

Approximately 4.8 billion eggs are laid in Australia each year.

How many eggs do hens produce each year?

On average hens produce approximately 300 eggs each year.

How do layer hens in Australia live?

Commercial hens that produce the vast majority of eggs are farmed in three different ways. These are known as 'production systems' and include cage, barn and free-range systems.

What's the typical lifecycle of a commercial layer hen?

Hens in commercial systems will live for around 72 weeks until they are considered 'spent'. Learn more about where a hen's life begins and ends.

What breeds of hens are used in commercial egg farming?

In Australia the most common breeds of layer hens used in commercial scale egg production are the Hy-Line Brown, ISA Brown and Hi-Sex Brown. Technical aspects aside, these birds are brown in colour with a red comb and have been genetically selected to lay as many eggs as possible over their relatively short life - around 300 eggs per year.

How intelligent are hens anyway?

Hens are much more intelligent than you might think. Hens are social animals and need to be able to communicate easily with each other. Hens have over 20 different calls, including two distinct alarm calls to warn their flock about approaching predators. Aerial (flying) predators such as hawks and eagles will cause hens to give a different alarm call than ground predators, and the birds react differently to each call. When hens hear an aerial alarm call they run for cover, crouch down and look upwards; when they hear a ground alarm call they actively look around them for signs of danger. Hens also use calls to communicate with each other about food. Studies of hens have indicated that they can interpret the meaning of individual calls and can use calls to show their intention when communicating with each other.

Hens have a complex nervous system that includes a prodigious memory and the ability to make complex decisions. Researchers who have studied the behaviour of hens are clear that battery cages can in no way meet the demands of such remarkable animals. Caged hens have little opportunity for decision making or control over their own lives. They have no access to materials for foraging, dust bathing or nesting. In the absence of these opportunities, hens are forced to find abnormal ways of coping without them. What the science tells us is that layer hens deserve much better than to be forced to endure their lifetime in a barren battery cage.

What happens when hens stop producing eggs?

Although hens have a natural lifespan of up to 12 years, their ability to produce eggs declines at around 72 weeks of age and as a result, commercial hens of this age are considered less profitable.

Sometimes commercial hens are put through a process of 'forced moulting' which extends their ability to produce eggs. Moulting is a natural process, allowing hens' bodies to rest and rebuild bone strength. In commercial systems however, moulting is carried out using feed withdrawal or non-feed withdrawal methods. Particularly for those birds that have feed withdrawn (for a period up to 2 weeks), forced moulting represents a serious welfare issue. Where feed isn't withdrawn, the bird's diet is changed to a feed low in energy and protein. Both methods cause a marked reduction in body weight but also re-invigorate egg production.

Where hens aren't forced to moult, they're considered 'spent' and are removed from production.

What's a spent hen?

A hens is declared 'spent' when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point they are considered less profitable and removed from the production system.

The process of removing 'spent' hens is known as 'depopulation' where hens are manually caught by human 'catchers' (up to 5 hens per hand) and placed into crates ready for transport.

There can be welfare issues during depopulation. For example,time pressures and rough handling often lead to injury such as bone fractures. Fracture rates tend to be higher in cage systems during depopulation, mainly because of the risks and difficulties involved in removing birds through narrow cage doors. Due to lack of exercise, caged birds also have weaker bones than birds from alternative systems and their legs or wings may snap.

So if layer hens are female, what happens to the male chicks?

Following an incubation period of 21 days, chicks will hatch and at one day old their sex is determined. Sexing chicks requires considerable skill and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.

It's only the female chicks that will become commercial layers that produce the eggs we eat. The male chicks are considered an unwanted by-product of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.

Male chicks are killedfor two reasons: firstly they can't lay eggs and secondly they aren't suitable for chicken-meat production. Remember layer hens - and therefore their chicks - are a different breed of poultry to chickens that are bred and raised for meat production. Learn more about male chicks in the egg industry.

Egg production systems in Australia

How many hens live in cages compared to other systems?

Nearly 70 per cent of hens in Australia are in a cage while 30 per cent are housed in cage-free systems, including free range and barn laid systems, so that means in 2012;

  • 11.25 million* hens in cages
  • 4.53 million* hens in free-range systems
  • 1.01 million* hens in barns

What's a cage system?

Over 11.3 million hens live in cages - this is around 70% of Australia's hens.

They are also known as 'battery' cages because of the way they are stacked above one another over multiple rows in a single shed sometimes containing up to 100,000 hens.

Hens in cage systems spend their entire life in a metal cage, and share their space with three to seven other hens.

Each hen is only allowed the space of less than an A4 sheet of paper.

Modern cage facilities have automated feed and watering systems, ventilation and lighting. Manure and eggs are collected via conveyor belt systems.

Basic needs such as perching, nesting, foraging, dust bathing and stretching or flapping wings aren't available to hens in cages.

Why are cages bad for hens?

There's overwhelming evidence that the needs of layer hens can't be met in a cage. Restrictions on bird movement in cages means hens suffer greatly both mentally and physically.

When confined to cages, hens are unable to express their most basic of natural behaviours, including walking, flying, hiding, stretching, perching, nesting and dust bathing - behaviours that make a hen, a hen. Physical problems caused by cages include feather loss and foot problems and brittle bones. Hens also have no escape from aggression, feather pecking and cannibalism.

The RSPCA acknowledges that there are advantages and disadvantages for each of the production systems. However the RSPCA believes that a cage will never address the behavioural needs of layer hens and will always have restrictions and adverse effects on bird movement, social interactions and behaviour.

What's the RSPCA doing about hens in cages?

The RSPCA aims to make people aware that all animals used by humans must be treated humanely and compassionately. For many years the RSPCA has been campaigning against battery cages in egg production.

In addition to this, the RSPCA's Humane Food activities form part of RSPCA Australia's efforts in improving the welfare of farm production animals.

RSPCA Australia is working directly with producers and their production systems via the Approved Farming Scheme ( www.shophumane.org.au), with the food manufacturers through the Good Egg Awards and with the restaurant sector via Choose Wisely.

It's important that consumers know where their food comes from and ask for higher welfare products when shopping and dining out.

Why haven't cages been banned in Australia?

RSPCA Australia and other animal welfare groups have worked concertedly to try to bring an end to the use of battery cages in Australia. In 1999 the Australian Government began a review into the housing of layer hens. The issue was intensely debated by the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups and the egg production industry. RSPCA Australia argued strongly and at every opportunity to phase out the use of battery cages in Australia. Sadly, despite the overwhelming evidence that hens suffer in cages, in 2000 the Council of State and Territory Agriculture Ministers (ARMCANZ) decided that cages would continue to be used for the foreseeable future. Some small improvements for caged hens came out of the 2000 ARMCANZ decision: to increase the floor space per hen from 450cm2 to 550cm2. This change applied to new cages installed after January 2001 and older cages that did not meet previous standards set in 1995. Many producers resisted even this tiny improvement but all States have now put this change into legislation.

If cages are cruel, why can't the RSPCA prosecute?

The RSPCA can only prosecute egg producers if they are breaking the law or contravening regulations that set minimum standards for battery cages. Farmers who provide their hens with the minimum 550cm2 per bird cannot be prosecuted, even if the RSPCA believe this is a cruel practice. The RSPCA works both to enforce existing laws and to change laws to improve the welfare of animals. Getting hens out of battery cages is one of the RSPCA's key aims and includes putting our message across to politicians, farmers and other key decision makers, as well as raising public awareness of the issue.

What's a furnished or enriched cage?

'Enriched' cages are similar to conventional cages. They were developed as an alternative to the traditional cage system with the aim of providing more space and height, as well as additional provisions such as nests, litter, scratching pads ( to help shorten claws), and perches allowing hens to display their natural behaviours.

Their size may vary, housing between 10 to 60 birds. A relatively new system, these 'enriched' cages are found in the European Union, however aren't yet used in Australia.

What's the RSPCA think of furnished or enriched cages?

The RSPCA believes that despite 'enrichments' in the furnished cage, problems persist. For example, there is not enough space to allow for a dust bath that is large and deep enough and has sufficient litter for all hens to access, there is competition between hens for the nest box and they then to want to lay their eggs at the same time and the position of the perch reduces the total area available. However the main argument against these enriched cages is that it still denies hens the ability to perform the most basic of natural behaviours, stretching and flapping their wings.

What's a barn system?

In a barn system, hens aren't kept in cages but instead can move about in large sheds. Around 1.1million hens are housed in barn systems in Australia. Flocks may be between 500 and 5,000 birds.

Sheds are normally equipped with an automated feeding and watering system, and eggs are collected mechanically.

Hens in barn systems can carry out natural behaviours such as stretching and flapping wings. All barns have nest boxes where hens can lay their eggs but not all barns have perches or litter which are key to catering to hens behavioural needs (some barns have slats or wire-mesh flooring).

Barn laid eggs are a good alternative to cage eggs. A well-managed barn can be just as welfare friendly for a hen as a proper free range facility. From an animal welfare perspective it's a myth that barn is second best. It's all about who is operating the system and to what standards they adhere.

Many eggs are now being marketed as cage-free. Essentially, if eggs are labelled cage-free they are barn laid.

The RSPCA approves some barn laid hen farms under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme.

What's a free range system?

There are around 4.5 million hens in free range systems in Australia. Conditions on free range farms vary greatly, but most importantly hens aren't confined to cages.

In a well-managed free range system hens should have access to an attractive outdoor area during the day including shade and protection. At night, large flocks of free range hens are usually kept in sheds or barns to keep them safe from predators, while smaller flocks may be kept in smaller, possibly moveable sheds.

Free range hens can dustbathe, scratch and forage, and lay their eggs in a nest. Some free range systems provide perches for hens to roost when they are inside at night.

TheRSPCA believes it's important that layer hens in free range systems are well managed, have access to appropriate shelter, and are provided with a suitable range area which they readily use.

The RSPCA approves some free range hen farms under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme.

What are the benefits of cage-free hen farming?

Higher welfare egg production systems such as barn and free range can protect the welfare of the individual bird and provide opportunities for birds to express their most basic and natural behaviours such as, perching, roosting, dust bathing, foraging, laying their eggs in a nest and where stocking density is appropriate allows hens to stand properly, walk and stretch and/or flap their wings. These production systems also allow for improved bone strength.

What is the price difference to consumers between cage and cage-free eggs?

The overall price difference between cage and cage-free for consumers is minimal. It is approximately 15-20 cents per egg. So if buying a dozen eggs per week then switching to cage-free will cost less than buying a bottle of water each week.

Can farmers afford to get rid of cages?

We know that alternative systems work because many farmers are already using them. What is needed to increase the move for more cage to cage-free systems is for consumers to avoid buying cage eggs. Farmers and supermarkets will respond to the demands of consumers if the message is loud and clear.

Barn and free-range eggs can be more expensive for farmers as switching from cage production requires a change in management and housing design. As such, consumers should be prepared to pay more for cage-free eggs because they cost more to produce. With cheap cage eggs, the hen is definitely paying the price.

The RSPCA believes this should be an area of focus for the Australian egg industry's research and development (R&D), rather than focussing on hens in cages the industry should be focussed on alternatives and further increasing the benefits of cage-free production.

What is happening in the rest of the world?

There are moves to get hens out of cages across the developed world, but the leader in this area is the European Union (EU). As of January 2012, all hens must have access to at least 750cm2 space, a nest, a perch and litter for dust bathing and scratching. Switzerland has already banned battery cages (since 1992) as has Germany (2012). In California, from 2015, hens may only be housed in systems that allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their wings and freely turn around.

Other interesting facts

Do we eat layer hens?

Layer hens are a totally different breed of bird to a meat chicken and are farmed to produce eggs rather than huge breast muscle.

Once a hen's egg production goes down, they are considered 'spent'. Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted or transported to an abattoir for slaughter. Some of the meat from spent hens is exported, while other options may include pet food, and lower-quality processing meat for human consumption such as in soups and stocks.

What's the difference between a layer hen and a meat chicken?

Layer hens and meat chickens are two different breeds of bird - grown for two different purposes. Layer hens are egg-laying specialists. Meat chickens by name and nature are bred to produce meat and lots of it.

Does the RSPCA want people to stop eating eggs?

No. The RSPCA's aim is to ensure the welfare of layer hens. The evidence demonstrates that it is simply not possible to provide for the needs of a layer hen in a battery cage, but that well designed and managed alternative systems can provide for hens' needs. Our aim is to get hens out of cages and into humane alternative systems.

I want hens at home - what do I do?

Check our Knowledge Base for all the information you need on the type of house you should build for your backyard hens.

How can I help?

What else can I do to help hens?

Thanks for choosing to make a difference. You've made the right decision!

There's heaps of ways you can help get hens out of cages see our Make a Difference page to find out how!

What eggs should I buy?

Download our shopping guide (.pdf 142kB) to know what to look for when you're in the supermarket aisle.



* Source: AECL 2012