For many Indians, eggs are a breakfast staple. But are all the egg farms across India free of cruelty to the hens that lay them? The recent investigations by Animal Equality, an animal protection organisation, answer the question with an emphatic “No”. According to their exposé, there are egg facilities in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana that have been resorting to cruel and illegal practices.
For years now, there has been an outcry over hens that are kept in cramped battery cages. This system of housing, mostly used for egg laying hens, has rows and columns of connected identical cages. Whether it is a petition started on change.org to end cruelty to 46 million such hens or recent action taken by the central government in May 2019 notifying draft rules prohibiting battery cages, the voices demanding a cruelty-free life for these animals are getting stronger in India.
Against this backdrop, Animal Equality’s investigation highlights the need to expedite this process. It has highlighted the unkind treatment meted out to the poultry, especially egg laying hens. “Four to eight hens were seen crammed in a cage which is no bigger than two A4 sheets of paper. Hens were found stepping on each other in an attempt to find space to move. These birds had sore, cracked and deformed feet from the wired floor of the cages. The stacking of overcrowded cages on top of one another caused urine and faeces to fall on to birds in lower cages. Hens were missing their feathers, suffering from abrasions and skin irritations, probably due to the high concentration of ammonia in their litter. There was little to no veterinary care and sick hens were left to die a slow, agonising death. Litter was collected in huge piles underneath the stacked cages, only to be disposed of once every few weeks,” claim some of the findings.
These conditions do not only affect the animals, the Executive Director of Animal Equality, Amruta Ubale, told 7Dnews. “We also saw workers and their children working for long hours at the farm or at times even living at these farms. Due to such a harmful environment, workers are known to contract respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic bronchitis.”
This was Animal Equality’s second investigation of egg farms. The findings of the first study, which was conducted in 2017, were also presented to the government, along with a list of recommendations to reduce the suffering of hens. Ubale said that some of these recommendations were included in the Law Commission’s proposed rules for the welfare of hens.
Battery cages sacrifice the quality of eggs
Shreya Paropkari from Humane Society International (HSI) also spoke to 7D news. She said that studies have found that the incidence of salmonella is higher in caged facilities than in cage-free facilities. Like Animal Equality, HSI has been campaigning against the use of battery cages. “A major study carried out by the European Food Safety Authority discovered this fact in 2007, which led to the ban on battery cages across the European Union. Several other concerns in relation to food security, animal cruelty and environmental impact have all led to various countries prohibiting battery cages,” said Paropkari.
Ubale said that the EU has banned eggs from India, adding, “It is submitted that India’s export of eggs has decreased drastically from 5743 tons to 764 tons, which equals an 86% reduction in export.”
Calls for cage-free farming
If there are alternatives available, why are the corporations reluctant to give up these cruel practices? In answer, Paropkari said, “There are two types of corporations that have a stake in this issue, producer corporations and consumer corporations. Major consumer corporations such as Marriott, Hilton, Nestle and Sodexo have pledged their support for animal welfare to ensure a shift to cage-free eggs. Consumers are aware of animal welfare issues and the demand for ethically sourced food is only increasing. In fact, we are working to engage and support several consumer corporations to develop and implement their commitments.”
As far as the producer corporations are concerned, she said, “There is obviously a transition cost to changing the housing system. The producer corporations (and India is home to some of the largest egg-producing companies in Asia) are capable of absorbing these marginally increased production costs. The major corporations seem unwilling to undertake this cost. However, the future is looking brighter for hens. There are an increasing number of cage-free producers in the country now. The Delhi High Court has recognised the issues associated with battery cages and has recently prohibited the establishment of new battery cages across the country.”
Animal Equality has also submitted a study on how farmers can transition from a cage to a cage-free housing system. Ubale said that the transition cost to a cage-free system from the present infrastructure is between 50 and 60 INR per cage. Citing the example of Europe, where battery cages are banned and cage-free systems are in use, she explained that farmers reached their break-even point between expenses and profits within just a few months of transition.
Moreover, Indian farmers have traditionally used cage-free farming. “It is only after the demand for eggs went high that such intensive farming methods were adopted. The need now is to go back to these traditional methods, not just to avoid cruelty but also for environmental sustainability,” she said.
In order to do this, Ubale said, “We work with food companies and egg producers and ask them to move away from cages. Many food companies have started sourcing eggs from cage-free farms and some egg producers have also started expanding their cage-free facilities, proving that this initiative is here to stay.”
The global scenario
Citing the examples of other countries, Ubale said, “The United States has various states like California, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, which have adopted the policy of prohibiting or phasing out battery cages for egg laying hens and all states need to have completely cage-free housing by 2022. Even our neighbouring state Bhutan declared itself a cage-free country in 2013.”