What is forced molting and why do they do it?
Hens kept outdoors will naturally go into a seasonal molt, during which they temporarily stop laying. But hens kept indoors, in cages inside artificially lit sheds, as virtually all egg-laying hens are in America today, will not molt naturally, Instead, American egg producers force them to molt by stopping their food for up to two weeks. During this process, many of them starve to death.
Few things are as cruel as taking away a caged animal's food. But many people who are told about forced molting refuse to believe that it is true. The first question usually is, "If it kills so many thousands of birds, why would anyone do it?"
Well, nearly all producers in the U.S. do do it and the reason is that the usual alternative is more expensive. One way or another, egg-laying will taper off after about a year. The producer then has two choices: Get rid of all the birds, or force them to molt, after which they will again lay eggs at a high rate.
Since the hens are in miserable condition after spending a year crammed into cages, selling them is not all that easy. The spent hens will probably wind up in cans of dog food or the USDA's school lunch program. The producers will get almost nothing for them
Forcing the hens to molt is therefore often cheaper than replacing them entirely, even if a large number of the flock die.
What happens is this: Turning out the lights and taking away their food (and sometimes water too) has an effect on the hens something like a particularly brutal winter. Their egg-laying shuts down and there is a period of oviduct rejuvenation. When the lights come back on and their food returns the birds begin to lay again as if it were spring.
Can you think of any other animal that is routinely starved like this for profit?
There is a dangerous side-effect to forced molting. The shock of starvation undermines the hens' immune systems leading to nearly universal levels of salmonellaa dangerous situation for consumers. Rather than clean up their own act, producers leave it to consumers to protect themselves and make sure they cook eggs well enough to destroy any deadly bacteria.
Starving hens is against the law in Europe. Starving is actually not even necessary to induce a molt. Some producers have found that modifying the diet with "fillers" like oats and wheat middlings produces the same effectbut without the pain and debilitation of starvation. This may not seem attractive to U.S. producers however since cutting off food from 100,000 or more birds for two weeks can add up to tidy savings for the unethical corporate producer.
You can usually tell when an egg comes from a force molted bird. The second and subsequent years of laying lead to a stretched oviduct and larger eggs. As with all battery operations, the eggs will be of poor quality with pale yolks that lie flat and break easily. But don't blame the poor hen who literally gives her life to the making of eggs (perhaps twenty times as many each year as she would under natural conditions). She gives up the calcium in her body until her bones become so brittle they may break from just trying to move in her cramped cage.
If you can't go eggless, at least get your eggs from birds who are cageless!
Calf photo at top copyright Compassion in World Farming (www.ciwf.org)