I have one question. You’re a nice person. So why the shell are you still eating eggs?
You may be shocked at the things that need to happen for people to eat chickens’ eggs, regardless of how kindly the still-fertile hens are farmed or how pastoral the setting. The sunny side is definitely up, while the dark side is hidden from view. Heck, even vegetarians eat them! How bad can they be?
The truth is that we are collectively adulterated into believing fairy tales surrounding animal products that defy common sense, and we operate in a social context that has robbed us of empathy for “food animals” – whom we are encouraged to see as anonymous production units rather than sentient individuals with personality to burn. Even chickens, typically thought of as simple creatures, have an intelligence level called “startling” by Scientific American.
When we try to break this spell, people are instinctively uncomfortable, defensive, and/or dismissive. If you’re feeling that way now, please read on.
Collectively, our society has now managed to peel back some of the ugly layers of egg production, resulting in more people seeking out cage-free or even pastured eggs. However, such farming conditions only address the tip of the ethical iceberg. Can you handle the rotten truth?
Humane Hurdle #1: This Bird You Can Change
While birds’ eggs are certainly edible – which I can only imagine was first discovered in a moment of desperation, if you really think about it – chickens found in nature only lay 10-15 of them a year, and they only do so during breeding season. Anyone’s eggs, after all, exist for reproductive purposes, not for others to eat.
Logical? Yes. Convenient? No.
Rather than adjusting ourselves to nature by, say, eating something else, we decided to rearrange nature to suit our desires.
Our first troubling solution was to selectively breed chickens for either their flesh or eggs. To turn each man-created “layer hen” into egg-laying factories, we essentially rigged their reproductive systems to lay hundreds of eggs a year, disregarding the fact that this greatly taxes their bodies and strips them of vital nutrients like calcium.
This article explains the highly labor-intensive process behind every single egg and includes a disturbing yet important 4-second video demonstrating our next topic.
Humane Hurdle #2: Sorry, Dudes
But then we faced another inconvenient hurdle of biology: half of all chicks are born male. Why is this a problem? Well, due to modern selective breeding, egg-laying strains differ from meat production strains. Male birds of the former do not actually lay eggs, being boys and all, yet also won’t grow large enough to justify their food and lodging. So what do we do?
Brace yourself for this particularly shameful solution: chick culling. Typical methods include cervical dislocation, asphyxiation, and maceration in a high-speed grinder. For real. Billions of newly hatched, adorable, fluffy yellow chicks – the ultimate symbol of vulnerable innocence – are routinely disposed of in this unthinkable, bloody, violent manner.
(And on Easter, we celebrate the symbol of chicks while decorating eggs. Please stop and think for a second about how utterly f*cked up this is.)
I understand most people would never condone this and it’s hard to accept – this can’t be real, because people wouldn’t stand for this… right? Yet the fact is most people have not the foggiest clue this is even going on, including myself for most of my life, despite it being standard practice and not denied whatsoever (but not exactly advertised) by the egg industry.
United Egg Producers spokesman Mitch Head has said, "There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens. If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we're happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need." Using a grinder, Head said, "is the most instantaneous way to euthanize chicks."
After getting over the initial shock, you may hope this doesn’t happen on small farms. Yet chick culling is standard practice – it happens at the hatcheries, before the chicks even get to the farm or homeowner's backyard. Even My Pet Chicken, who "lead the way in urban chicken space" and pride themselves on being "humane," admits to doing it (which they deceptively frame as "euthanizing".) This is because, again, half of all chicks are born male, regardless of how “free” their sisters may temporarily be. It’s biology and math. And consumers just don't want male chicks of this breed. There is a socially-ingrained expectation that even pet chickens will lay eggs. Yet we don't require this of other pets like dogs and cats – to be fertile females who provide human-manipulated edible secretions.
Although small farms raising animals for food have become lionized, they are not manned by magicians, and they also exist solely to profit from animals’ flesh and fluids – none of which humans actually have any need to consume.
Yet our desire and false sense of need to eat the unfertilized eggs of female birds requires male chicks to be continuously hatched and immediately killed in an endless cycle behind the scenes.
Even Comedian Aziz Ansari has said, if more people actually knew about this, “We’d all check ‘no’ on that box. But the problem is this kind of information, this kind of footage, it just hasn’t been seen in the right context to elicit… mass outrage.” View this surprising moment in his performance at the end of this article.
Humane Hurdle #3: It’s a Gas
As if this weren’t enough to turn your stomach, especially if you’ve just had hopefully your last non-vegan omelet, there is a third major inconvenience of egg production: lady parts are only fertile for a fraction of one’s lifetime (as child-free thirty-somethings like myself are often reminded – thanks, Mom).
Again, this is totally logical, but majorly inconvenient under our egg-eating scenario. It’s not profitable, sustainable, or even safe given agriculture-induced bird diseases to collectively allow the tens of billions of hens we continuously breed into existence for their eggs to actually live out their natural lifespan of eight years or more, or anywhere even close to it.
Also, remember how I mentioned it taxes hens’ bodies to lay hundred of eggs a year? They would likely eventually die prematurely anyway from painful diseases related to excessive egg-laying.
Although decades ago, the meat of "spent" hens was used for stews, tastes have since changed and they are no longer considered edible at all. USA Today calls them “tough” and “stringy,” noting the USDA tried to use them for school lunches, but administrators admitted, “The taste just didn’t go over." The "spent" hen meat market has collapsed so dramatically that the cost of slaughtering and processing menopausal poultry wouldn’t be recouped.
Rotten solution 3: Around one to two years of age, when their production wanes, "spent" hens are typically placed in a sealed area filled with carbon monoxide, and then their bodies are layered into a mound of sawdust. Again, I’m serious. In about a month, they turn into compost, which smells like death and attracts vultures. In the Press Democrat, Jim Stauffer of Petaluma described seeing chickens crawling out of a mound of compost like the living dead. "We called them zombie chickens. Some of them crawled right up out of the ground. They'd get out and stagger around."
However, the sickening fate of these hens, when considered at all, has been spun to seem as though something people can actually feel good about, because they are “recycling” the exhausted chickens. Plus, while the slaughter costs of spent hens wouldn’t be recouped, this Applied Poultry Science piece states, “The efficiency of the [gassing] unit should make it possible to recover the cost of the CO2 used to kill the hens.”
I invite you to read that last sentence one more time, and to reflect on exactly when we turned into such monsters.
Natural - existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
Humane - having or showing compassion or benevolence.
We are told eggs are “natural” and that they can be “humane,” and it’s easy to believe when we see hens roaming happily in a field (which again, is the rare and un-scalable exception to factory farming). Yet you are only seeing a small part of the story, from which eggs cannot be coherently separated. They are only produced by selectively bred females – allowed to live at all because they weren't born male – and only for a fraction of their natural lifespan.
You might still be searching for the rare exception. A backyard hen owner who was given a hen whom they’ve vowed will be kept as a pet once spent? That hen wouldn’t have been bred and wouldn’t be laying more than a dozen or so eggs a year without the supporting system of selectively breeding, sexing, and slaughtering chickens, which we condone and help normalize by eating eggs. Here’s an excellent piece that goes into further detail on this topic.
The information here only represents a very tiny fraction of why one would choose to go vegan. It takes serious bravery to defy social norms, and that’s the hardest part about it for many. But the only regret I have about becoming vegan, and one I hear often from others, is that I only wish I did it sooner. Seriously.
Voltaire said some version of the following: “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.” We have been sold the lie that eating the eggs of chickens is natural and humane and therefore we commit atrocities (by proxy) to purchase and consume them. So next time you are tempted to eat eggs, ask yourself if you would press the “on” switch on a chick grinder or hen gassing unit. If not (and let’s hope not), try making one of these instead or experiment with your own ideas. Baking without eggs is particularly easy. And just wait until you play with aquafaba!
Are You My Mother?
As if we needed another reason to stop eating birds' eggs, a whole other messed-up aspect of all this is that almost all farmed chickens today are hatched under artificially incubators, for our convenience. The fragile day-old chicks are even shipped in the mail. So hens, naturally some of the most maternal creatures on the planet, are altogether denied of any motherhood experience, while chicks are denied a mother. No one to teach them how to be a chicken. Because we don’t care about chickens, we just care about "chicken" and eggs. Essentially, we deny them both a mother and motherhood while exploiting their reproductive systems to a breaking point for a substance we don't need. Then we kill and replace them. Yet these are sentient individuals with personality to burn and lives that matter to them. Please watch the below informative and entertaining presentation Who Chickens Really Are by my friend Robert Grillo of Free From Harm, who has rescued and nurtured many chickens (and posts some of the most touching and adorable chicken moments on his Facebook page). <3
Thanks for reading and opening your mind. Stay tuned for my upcoming piece on why dairy is scary. [Edit - someone beat me to this title, so check out her informative 5-minute video!]
How to Go Vegan
The below list of resources is borrowed from Best Video You Will Ever See:
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Article written by Lorelei Plotczyk