What do the Polish 2023 parliamentary elections mean for animals?
December 27, 2023
September 12, 2023
Thousands of caged hens, hundreds of weak and injured animals left unattended, up to hundreds of them dead every day – these are just some of the animal welfare violations documented in the latest Anima International investigation in Poland. Two investigative activists worked undercover on a laying hen farm belonging to Fermy Drobiu Woźniak, the largest egg producer in the European Union and a major global exporter, revealing the grim reality of caged hen farming.
Egg production has been consistently increasing worldwide, reaching over 92 million tons in 2021. In 2021, 376 million hens were farmed in the European Union alone. As of 2023, nearly 40% of hens are still kept in cages in the EU. In Poland, it is around 73%.
Shockingly, despite the number of animals and the size of the industry, research into and knowledge of hen welfare is very limited. Due to the fact that the producers’ main goal is to optimize for egg production efficiency, animal welfare is systematically neglected and disregarded, as long as enough hens survive the short and intense production cycle to produce desired outputs. The animals’ bodies are exploited to the biological limit.
Farmers force the animals to produce staggering numbers of eggs during their lifespan by various means. The methods to achieve high output include selecting breeds with genes that foster more efficient egg-laying, inventing highly specialized feed, and mechanizing the means of production for speed and profit. These developments have shaped the present mode of commercial egg production, in which an average hen lays about 320 eggs over a period of 70–80 weeks, compared to about 80 eggs per year in 1900. Most of the industry has a goal to go even further, pushing the bodies of animals to reach 500 eggs per laying hen in about 100 weeks.
The most drastic and inhumane change in how eggs are produced today in comparison to the past is the radical reduction of the quality of the hens’ housing. Animals have been stripped of any semblance of a natural environment, which most producers deem unnecessary. This includes access to fresh air, sun, outdoor environment, vegetation, and other crucial stimuli. Animals have ended up locked in shockingly small cages without the ability to leave them at any point in their production cycle life.
The European Union allows the use of so-called enriched cages. In contrast to battery cages, which are now illegal in the EU, the system provides more space for hens and caters to some behavioral needs. The space allowance per bird is still minimal, restricting the space to 750 square centimeters per hen, which translates to an area roughly equal to the size of an A4 piece of paper for each animal. This has led to the construction of massive sheds in which animals live in barren environments and unnatural conditions.
The welfare issues connected with keeping animals in cages their whole life are not a problem of the past. The most in-depth and up-to-date scientific analysis of the effects of industrial farming on hens’ welfare was published in peer-reviewed journals as recently as 2021. While the findings of the report strongly support an intuitive assessment of the caging system as inhumane, the producers and legislators continue to allow these farming practices, despite public opposition and the body of scientific evidence.
All these factors led to significant opposition from European citizens. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom produce the majority of their eggs in cage-free systems already. We can see a similar trajectory in the United States - a country less well-known for its animal welfare considerations in comparison to Europe.
In Poland, public opposition to these practices has seen a rapid and significant increase. Anima International published the first investigation from cage egg farms in the country in 2014. In January 2014, 87.38% of hens in Poland were kept in cages. Since then, around 150 companies have switched to cage-free systems or committed to phasing out cages by 2025. Due to these changes, the number of hens kept in cages dropped to 72.88% by July 2023. This reduction is also supported by the increasingly negative perception of cage farming in Polish society. In a recent opinion poll, 75% of Poles expressed their support for the ban on cage farming of animals.
This high number is particularly noteworthy given the importance of Poland’s agricultural sector and the fact that Polish citizens are less wealthy compared to other Western European countries.
The biggest egg producer in Poland is Fermy Drobiu Woźniak, which is also the biggest in the European Union. It is the second-largest egg producer in Europe, ranking among the largest globally. The company operates 136 poultry houses in 22 locations across Poland, keeping over 10 million hens, with more than 9 million of them in cages. The company claims to produce a daily output of 570,000 eggs per hour from cage, barn, and free-range systems. The company has an integrated production system that includes hatcheries, rearing facilities, parent flocks, production farms, and packaging facilities. Despite the huge scale of production, the company employs only 2,000 workers.
One in five hens in Poland lives at a farm owned by Fermy Drobiu Woźniak.
The company’s business strategy is predominantly focused on export. According to a 2023 statement from the company representative, up to 70% of its production is exported. The company’s own materials report working with 60 countries worldwide, mainly in Europe, but also in Africa and Asia.
Partners listed by Woźniak over the past few years include countries such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Italy. Fermy Drobiu Woźniak are the only Polish egg producer exporting to Israel. Singapore is another important partner – 9% of eggs in the country come from the company. This highlights the discrepancy between domestic laws regulating farmed animal welfare with the lack of the same control over imported products. While some countries reduce the import volume or ban cage farming, they can still import cage eggs, including from Poland. Such practices could potentially go against public sentiment, as societies voice increasing concern for the welfare of animals in these markets.
Anima International has just released footage from an investigation into a laying hen farm of this European market leader in order to shed light on how eggs are currently being produced.
A 50-minute video report along with an article about the investigation by journalists Dominik Szczepański and Patryk Strzałkowski was published on the main page of Gazeta.pl – a major Polish news portal. This is the longest investigative video concerning animal welfare produced in collaboration with journalists in Poland to date. The video report and the article are also available in English.
Anima International also published a short version of the video with footage obtained during the investigation. English version below. As you can see, the footage is so drastic, that YouTube placed age restrictions on it.
In May and June 2023, two activists – Oksana and Sasha – worked undercover on a farm in Wioska, a village in central-west Poland. According to the Polish General Veterinary Inspectorate, the farm keeps nearly a million laying hens in cages and tens of thousands in a barn system. The activists recorded over 900 videos showing the disturbing conditions of laying hens and documented a number of serious welfare issues and violations. Even though the cages were enriched, as per European Union regulations, the conditions at the farm fell short of the requirements. Welfare issues and visible cruelty inherent in laying hen farming were evident.
The birds were confined to extremely cramped cages, leading to frequent fights over limited space. Nests intended to offer privacy and comfort were actually small enclosures separated by metal sheets. Often the iron bars used as perches cause hens to become trapped and distressed, often dying of thirst and hunger. Additionally, the absence of litter in the cages was in clear violation of regulations.
A distressing pattern of cannibalism among hens was prevalent, with no visible measures taken to address injuries. The temperature in the buildings reached almost 30 degrees Celsius, exposing the animals to permanent heat stress. The sheds were permeated by constant industrial and animal-based noise and irritating dust.
Overcrowded space and artificial environment led to numerous unnatural behaviors: aggression, cannibalism, and exhaustion, just to name just a few.
Many hens were infested with external parasites, which were present in most sheds. According to information from other workers, despite the parasite infestation, disinfection was not carried out, as it was deemed too costly. Parasites spread from animals to the workers. They suffered numerous bites, despite putting on an additional layer of clothes under the work overalls to protect their bodies. Women on their periods would find parasites on their sanitary pads attracted by the blood. They had to improvise in order to protect themselves, for example by putting on many layers of clothing.
“They’re basically everywhere. One step, and you can already feel them crawling on you. On your face and neck, in your hair. Even wearing extra pants under the work overalls doesn’t entirely protect me.”
Although barn farming provides hens with better welfare and greater opportunities to meet their species-specific needs compared to cage farming, it is still an intensive farming method with various welfare issues. Recordings from the farm in Wioska show instances of aggression among hens in barn systems and acts of cannibalism. Both dead and live hens trapped in moving parts of the aviary that closed nests were a particularly common sight, resulting in animals dying due to being cut off from water and food. As the body of evidence highlights, proper supervision and management of poultry houses are crucial for improving animal welfare in indoor cage-free farming. Switching to barn systems by producers cannot be an excuse for not caring and paying attention to the mistreatment of animals.
The workers used the word zdychy – a Polish derogatory and somewhat vulgar expression – to describe the dead hens that they needed to remove daily. According to the investigative workers, many as 100 hens could be found in one building in a single day, at times obstructing conveyor belts and allowing eggs to come into contact with deceased animals. Sometimes the records inaccurately reflected the true numbers of dead animals. While the law requires dead hens to be collected on a daily basis, a significant portion of them were left lying in cages for many days or even weeks, exposing remaining alive animals to additional stress and negatively impacting their health. Disturbingly, dead hens were discovered in advanced stages of decomposition.
Complete disregard for the animals’ lives permeated the work environment. Sick birds received no veterinary care and were left to die from exhaustion, injuries, and cannibalism. The workers’ role was to collect the dead hens, not to help them. Moreover, there were too few workers, calculating that there were up to 20,000 animals per worker. The pace of work, lack of compliance with health and safety regulations and biosecurity principles, and violation of basic workers’ rights are the additional focus of this investigation.
Oksana and Sasha were not trained in occupational health and safety, biosecurity, or animal care. They were given no instructions on what to do with animals that were injured, sick, or stuck between the different elements of the sheds. Adequate protective gear for the workers was not provided, and they needed to buy their own gloves and dust masks, as the ones they received were often of the wrong size, of insufficient quality, or in insufficient quantity. Sasha was not referred for medical examinations and was not issued medical records for sanitary and epidemiological purposes. The investigative workers – engaged by an external agency – were not informed about their rights and duties, nor did they receive any contracts, despite being asked to provide scans of their passports and residence cards. Only several weeks after their employment ended, and after persistent requests via a messaging app, they received a commission contract.
Shockingly, according to the investigative workers, biosecurity measures were not followed, despite guidelines being placed on the doors of the sheds. Biosecurity mats designed to reduce contamination were often bypassed, not to soil the shed floor. What is more, according to the undercover employees, disinfection liquid was used on the farm only once, before an inspection. The disregard for biosecurity measures is all the more shocking given that the same producer faced Salmonella infection issues back in 2017 and complained about bird flu affecting global production as recently as in 2023.
The epidemiological aspect of factory farming and associated social and economic costs are increasingly prevalent. Zoonotic diseases like Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and African Swine Fever (ASF) are a recurring issue for farmers. In Poland, there have been three waves of HPAI since 2007 – in 2007, when 0.7 million hens were culled, 2016–2017 when 1.1 million were culled, and from 2019 until today. With 18.7 million being killed up until July 2022 only. It’s worth underlining that such epidemiological hazards cannot be contained within a country, making it a global problem.
What is crucial to underline is that none of the issues documented by Anima International were isolated cases – they were observed every single day. The farm employees’ daily tasks included collecting dead hens, catching hens who escaped from cages, and cleaning the surrounding area. Taking care of the animals was not a part of their duties, and everyday veterinary care was not provided. This led to a work environment in which animals were treated as a commodity, rather than living creatures with their specific welfare needs and preferences.
“Once I came across a stuck hen, and tried to help her get out of there. (...) As workers, we didn’t receive any instructions on what to do with such hens. When my coworkers saw me trying to help, they told me not to touch them. Just leave them there. They’ll die anyway. It doesn’t make sense.”
The scale of violations and animal suffering was so significant that Anima International has filed a notice to the prosecutor’s office in Poland on the grounds of potential animal abuse. The case of rearing of laying hens in cages is different from many other cases of animal abuse, because in this case there is no single culprit who mistreated the animals. The flawed system is to blame for allowing the animals to suffer on a daily basis by failing to help them with injuries and illnesses, subjecting the animals to aggression from their cage mates, counting thousands of dead animals as ‘acceptable’ losses, and driving the hens to such extreme exhaustion that they literally die while laying eggs.
The same problems are observed throughout the industry, regardless of the size of the farm – as demonstrated by our many investigations over the years. Furthermore, as we show here, the problems are so pronounced that they are clearly visible, even from the industry leaders.
A supplier who keeps the largest number of hens in the entire European Union should also be the leader in terms of welfare standards. Anima International has started a petition to urge the producer to phase out cage farming by 2027, thereby setting a benchmark for the industry at large. Fermy Drobiu Woźniak’s decision to phase out cage farming would affect several million hens per year.
Right now, there’s a crucial window of opportunity to reshape how animals are treated in the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, finds herself in an unprecedented position to lead this transformation, thanks to a current review of EU animal welfare laws.
The proposed revision isn’t some minor policy update. It can be a once-in-a-decade overhaul that could significantly alleviate the suffering of billions of animals. One cornerstone of this revision is the “End the Cage Age” initiative, led by the organization Compassion in World Farming with the goal of implementing an EU-wide ban on cage farming for a number of species, such as hens, pigs, rabbits, and calves.
The numbers speak volumes and are staggering – End the Cage Age alone would affect over 300 million animals in the EU who are currently confined in small, cramped cages, suffering every day. This is far from a niche consideration; it’s a mainstream concern that 1.4 million Europeans felt strongly enough about to sign an official petition to the European Union.
This past July, Anima International, in partnership with Compassion in World Farming, submitted over 200,000 End the Cage Age signatures to the Polish Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Our joint effort aims to urge Poland – a country where over 70% of laying hens are still kept in cages – to fully support the EU-wide cage ban.
Von der Leyen has a monumental opportunity to align policy with public sentiment, taking decisive action that could relieve animal suffering on an unprecedented scale. Her leadership could set an example for the entire globe. In fact, all countries that export animal products to the EU would likely have to raise their welfare standards to meet the new EU requirements, thus amplifying the impact of this reform on a worldwide scale.
Anima International, together with other animal advocacy groups, urges all relevant decision-makers to take a decisive stance against animal cruelty.