India’s egg consumption, like chicken consumption has been growing steadily. The big states for egg production are Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu (mostly for export) Punjab and Haryana.
Last week, my partner, Wan Park, and I visited several battery cage egg facilities in Haryana ranging in size from roughly 10,000 hens to 150,000 hens and supplying consumers in Delhi. Access to the production and processing facilities described here was generously facilitated by Nitin Goel of the Humane Society International (HSI), who is working on factory farming issues related to chickens in India. To learn more about HSI’s work in India, click here.
According to HSI, India has more than 200 million egg-laying hens, the vast majority of whom spend their lives crammed in battery cages. Hearing the sounds of the hens screaming and seeing their loss of plumage, sores on their bodies, and the inability to move or spread their wings was alarming.
Hens arrive in the facilities as day old chicks. (The male chicks at hatcheries are usually killed at birth). The hens start laying eggs when they are about six months in age, and live until they are about 18 months. Then, they are sent for slaughter. Their meat is usually sold for a cheaper price than “broiler” chickens. The military, I learned, is one such purchaser of spent egg laying hen meat.
The first thing that hits you when you enter a battery cage facility is the smell of ammonia. The sheds are usually two story brick structures, with rows of chickens in tiered cages. Chicken waste piles up on site and is sold to farmers for manure, but can be carried away with rainwater run-off onto adjacent rice fields and drainage channels. One facility we visited was notorious for its filth and located next to the main highway. Rats outnumbered the hens and were foraging for feed. Water and waste run-off from the facility drained offsite and was ponded in approximately 1 km stretch of land adjacent to the highway, which is soon to be slated for a road lane expansion project.
To protect our shoes, we had extra covers (which was like a shower cap for feet) from our trip to the processing plant, but sometimes were given the “desi” version’a plastic bag to step into and tie around our legs. The workers in the facility didn’t wear any shoe protection. Many wore flip flops, and some were barefoot. They didn’t have masks to protect them from the ammonia, dust, feathers and other particulates. Like with the broiler farms and processing plants, many of the workers are migrants from poorer states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They live on site with their families. In one facility we visited, we saw children of the workers helping out in egg collection.
While these Indian egg facilities were all intensive factory farms, watering, feeding, egg collection and temperature controls are all manual operations and not automated. But labor is increasingly hard to find for many of the owners because workers are often opting to find better work for more pay. Average salaries at the egg facility are about 3000 Rupees/month (less than $65 USD).
I had a chance to talk with several egg farm owners. What I found interesting was that many of them were pure vegetarians and didn’t even consume eggs themselves. When I asked why they joined this field, the response was straightforward’ it was a good business investment. Many of these operations started in the late 80s and early 1990s. At that time, feed costs were really low and profits were high. The poultry industry in India is all-cash business, and there is no sales tax, no income tax, and no regulation.
But over the past few years, the egg industry has been facing lots of problems. With the rising cost of feed, shortage of labor, increase in threats of disease and public health scares around bird flu, profits are dwindling. Most of the owners want their children to be educated and pursue some other field and not enter the poultry business.
Some felt that the only way to remain viable is to expand the business and raise more chickens, while others may be opting to leave the field entirely. Several egg facilities neighboring the places we visited have shut down in the past couple of years.
While business journals report the growth prospects of the Indian poultry sector, the economic viability seems uncertain. The environmental issues have not been fully explored, and can’t be ignored for much longer.
At the end of the month, The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) and Humane Society International (HSI) will be conducting a workshop on factory farming in India and the impact on animals, human health and the environment.
Photos Courtesy of Wan Park/Humane Society International