Hüseyin Solak, the owner of organic producer Lord Eggs. (Credit: Personal archive)

Forty leading brands in Turkey’s hospitality and food distribution industries recently announced that they would be changing their sourcing practices for eggs, to promote animal welfare. The move has drawn attention to the conditions in which the 120 million hens used for egg production in Turkey are kept. Almost all are held in cages too narrow for them to spread their wings, where they are unable to carry out basic needs like perching, digging around and laying eggs on nesting boxes. 

To maximise profits, egg producers give each bird a space that’s the equivalent of a sheet of standard-sized letter paper. The animals are robbed entirely of their natural instincts, living under conditions that stress them to the point where they start attacking and injuring each other.  

Caged hens often end up killing each other in physical fights. They are kept in closed facilities where the air is heavy with the smell of ammonia from defecation, which burns the animals’ lungs and eyes. 

The Platform for the Protection of Farm Animals is working to gradually diminish and eventually eliminate demand for cage systems in a project supported by the European Union’s Think Civil (Sivil Düşün) Programme.

One major barrier to organic production is higher costs. Organic production of eggs yields per-unit costs that are double the costs of cage systems, said Hüseyin Solak, the owner of organic producer Lord Eggs. Solak told Inside Turkey that caged birds produce eggs at an efficiency rate of 95 to 98 per cent on average, a number that drops to between 75 and 77 per cent with organic production. 

Food is one of the biggest expenses. “It’s forbidden to use meat and bone meals in organic production, but it’s allowed in all other modes of production,” Solak said.

“The animals’ feed also needs to consist of organic-certified grains that don’t include pesticides. These ingredients are both difficult to find and costly. Besides, the animals require more feed since they burn calories by leaving their cages and moving around.”

Organic production mandates at least four square metres of space per hen, Solak said, adding that the presence of roosters can also improve hens’ well-being. 

“Creatures who are in contact with the opposite sex are happier. Their hormones are more balanced, especially their progesterone.”

İlyas Kumbasar, owner of Kumbasar Eggs, claims that official figures overstate the number of organic eggs being produced. 

“The government only inspects locations where organic eggs are produced. But these producers sell to wholesalers, which are not inspected by the state,” he said. Only eggs sold at markets are certified – meaning there is no oversight of those sold to wholesalers.

Kumbasar claims that most eggs sold as organic or free-range are falsely labelled. 

“There are people who produce organic eggs decently but most of them had to leave the business. The production costs are so high, and fake substitutes to their product exist. So many people went bankrupt.” 

In information provided on its website, Turkey’s agriculture and forestry ministry said that abuse of the certification process is punished with fines. 

Caged hens suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, Kumbasar said, adding that many cage producers have been paying more attention to the birds’ well-being. 

“Otherwise the animals can’t feed, can’t sleep and get sick more often,” he said.

Emre Kaplan, of the campaign group Farm Animals Protection Platform, told Inside Turkey that caged egg production was “hell for the animals”.

Emre Kaplan, of the campaign group Farm Animals Protection Platform. (Credit: Personal archive)

“A chicken is a sensitive creature that can feel pain and joy. They get scared when their chicks are injured, and they hurt when other birds pluck their feathers. They are curious, like to roam and explore their natural environments. The cruel cages they’re imprisoned in turns their lives into living hell. We need to put an end to this,” Kaplan said.

The cages also threaten human health, Kaplan said, noting that research has shown salmonella to emerge most often in caged production facilities.

“The salmonella bacteria is the most common cause of chicken and egg poisoning. So the abandonment of caged production should reduce food poisonings,” Kaplan said. 

A study by the European Food Safety Authority showed that the risk of salmonella increases five-fold in caged production facilities. 

There have been steps taken elsewhere in the world to abandon caged production. Brazil’s fourth-largest wholesaler announced that it would stop selling eggs produced in caged systems. Czechia, Austria, Germany and ten US states have passed legislation that bans caged egg production, while the European Commission has also announced that it will ban the system in the EU from 2027.

Engin Arıkan, a law expert from the Turkish-German University in Istanbul. (Credit: Personal archive)

“Suffering doesn’t need to be the fate of chickens in Turkey,” Kaplan said. “We can give them a piece of earth to walk on and some space to spread their wings. We are aiming to rescue all 100 million hens in Turkey who are imprisoned for their eggs. We’re working to make sure that not even a single chicken is left in a cage by 2030.”

Kaplan continued, “We are working to make wholesalers, restaurant chains, packaged food producers and catering companies exclude caged egg production from their supply chains. We’re reaching out to companies to talk about how caged egg production is not sustainable in the future and is slowly being phased out. For instance, Beyaz Fırın bakery [a large chain] stopped using caged eggs altogether after our meetings. They now buy free-range eggs.”

A 2021 survey by the polling agency Konda Research and Consulting showed that 76 per cent of the population believes industrial cages should be eliminated. 

Data from the Turkish Statistical Institution (TÜİK) showed that Turkey produced 1.6 billion eggs in September 2021. Around 100 million hens are estimated to be kept in cages. 

“A 2018 mandate to show in egg barcodes which system they were produced in allowed for consumers to be aware of their purchases and make more informed decisions. 0 means organic, 1 means free range, while 2 and 3 mean cage system,” said Engin Arıkan, a law expert from the Turkish-German University in Istanbul. 

Aynur Akkol is a consumer who always makes sure the eggs she buys are organic. She told Inside Turkey that she made sure to check the eggs’ serial numbers. 

Prof. Tayfun Özkaya, agro-ecology expert. (Credit: Personal archive)

“I choose the ones that have 0 and 1. They’re both healthier and taste better,” she said. 

Caged hens also transfer toxic ingredients from their food to their eggs, said agro-ecology expert Tayfun Özkaya. “Cage eggs sell for cheaper, but the health spending needed for people who consume these eggs, and the ecological cost of this consumption bring the eventual price of the good to unaffordable levels.”

Turkey has recently brought its laws into line with European minimum standards on egg production. But these still permit the use of cages.

Merve Özbek, a food engineer. (Credit: Personal archive)

“Foot and leg deformations, lethargy and cage rage are just some of the issues cages cause in animals. Negative behaviours like feather plucking and fighting also emerge as a result of stress,” Merve Özbek, a food engineer, told Inside Turkey. 

“Eggs are a traditional food item consumed all around the world. Considering how easy they are to consume and their high protein volume, producers should accommodate consumers’ demands [for higher standards] by regulating their production systems,” Özbek concluded.