Forced molting is the practice of causing stress to egg-laying hens, usually through starvation, so that they will produce larger eggs later. This practice is common among large factory farms, where egg-laying hens live in battery cages that are so crowded, the birds cannot fully extend their wings.
Withholding food from the birds for 5 to 21 days causes them to lose weight, lose their feathers, and stop egg production. While their egg production stops, the hens' reproductive system is "rejuvenated," and the hens will later lay larger eggs, which are more profitable.
Hens will naturally molt (lose their feathers) once a year, in the autumn, but forced molting allows farms to control when this happens and cause it to happen earlier. When hens go through a molt, whether it is forced or natural, their egg production temporarily drops or stops completely.
Forced molting can also be achieved by switching the hens to a feed that is nutritionally deficient. While malnutrition may seem more humane than outright starvation, the practice still causes the birds to suffer, leading to aggression, feather-plucking, and feather-eating.
Hens can be force-molted once, twice or three times before the spent hens are slaughtered for pet food and other uses. If the hens are not force-molted, they may be slaughtered instead.
According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, "Induced molting can be an effective management tool, enabling you to match egg production with demand and reduce bird cost per dozen eggs."
Animal Welfare Controversy
The thought of withholding food for up to three weeks seems patently cruel, and animal advocates are not the only critics of the practice, which is banned in India, the UK, and the European Union. According to United Poultry Concerns, both the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Scientific Veterinary Committee for the European Union have condemned forced molting. Israel has also banned forced molting.
While forced molting is legal in the United States, McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's have all pledged not to buy eggs from producers that engage in forced molting.
Human Health Concerns
Aside from the obvious suffering of the chickens, forced molting increases the risk of salmonella in the eggs. A common source of food poisoning, salmonella is most dangerous for children and those with weakened immune systems.
Forced Molting and Animal Rights
Forced molting is cruel, but the animal rights position is that we do not have the right to buy, sell, breed, keep or slaughter animals for our own purposes, no matter how well they are treated. Raising animals for food violates the animals' right to be free of human use and exploitation. The solution to cruel factory farming practices is veganism.