Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite. It was originally published on October 29, 2012. Enjoy.
It’s hard to argue with vegans’ reasons for excluding eggs from their diet. To start, laying hens are crammed into wire cages that allow each hen a living space less than the size of an 8 ˝” x 11″ sheet of paper. Virtually every natural behavior is thereby thwarted, including nesting, scratching, foraging, preening, dust-bathing and simply flapping their wings. Disease runs rampant, the stench of ammonia from feces saturates the air inside the shed and carcasses are left lying among the surviving hens. At only two years of age, after being forced to produce more eggs in that time than their bodies are designed to handle, these hens are “spent” and so sent to the slaughterhouse for processing.
There’s also the horrifying fact that for every laying hen subjected to this systematic abuse, there is a male chick — more than 200 million of them every year – that’s killed the day it’s born, tossed into a trash bag to suffocate or ground up by a macerator while it’s still alive. Why? Because it can’t lay eggs (being male) and won’t grow fast enough to be profitably raised for meat (having been born as a layer versus a broiler chick). These are the widespread practices of an egg industry focused on maximizing profits at any cost to animal welfare and ethical responsibility.
Nonetheless, ethical egg eating can be done under the following circumstances:
1. The Egg Comes from a Free and Happy Hen
A happy hen has a comfortable place to live and is free to engage in every natural behavior that occurs to her, including broodiness (see #4 below). As she would in the wild, she lives among several other hens and a rooster. She’s well cared for and raised by a local farmer you trust or by yourself in your own backyard, in which case she can be considered part of your family, a beloved pet like any other.
2. The Egg Is Unfertilized
This addresses the fundamental moral issue of taking a life to satisfy one’s appetite. As explained by Umbra on Grist, “It is not my opinion but rather a fact that if a hen’s egg has not been fertilized by a rooster, no embryo or chick will form.” So no life will be taken by eating an unfertilized egg. A hen will lay eggs regardless, and “in the wild,” according to Library Index, “the hen would leave infertile eggs to rot or be eaten by predators.”
You can “candle” eggs, or hold them up to a light, to figure out which are fertilized and which are not, according to LocalHarvest.org. The ones that appear opaque are fertilized.
You can ensure that hens will lay only infertile eggs by keeping roosters off the premises, away from the hens, but would that be ethical? I spoke with one farmer, Nigel Waters of Eatwell Farm in the Sacramento Valley, who produces pasture-raised, free range, organic eggs, and he believes that his hens could easily do without any roosters around. But another farmer, Stephanie Alexandre of Alexandre EcoDairy Farms in Crescent City, California, argued that her roosters are integral to the social order on the farm, helping to protect the hens and keep them in line, and of course sounding the wake-up call for all. “In natural conditions,” as explained on Library Index, “chickens tend to live in small groups composed of one male chicken… and a dozen or more female chickens.”
At any rate, while well-meaning eaters may choose to eat only infertile eggs, they are nonetheless also implicated in whatever becomes of the eggs with actual prospects for life. So let’s consider that next.
3. Chicks (Male and Female) Are Nurtured, Free and Happy
Not all fertilized eggs hatch. They have to be incubated by a broody hen (see #4 below) or an artificial incubator, and even then there’s no guarantee. But what about those that do hatch? What becomes of the chicks — male or female — born on better farms?
At Alexandre EcoDairy Farms, the chicks simply become members of the flock, including the males that get to grow up to be roosters. The same goes for the chicks born on Eatwell Farm, though Mr. Waters adds that very aggressive roosters are no longer tolerated there, following an incident involving one of his young sons.
Yet, it should be noted that even those farmers who go out of their way to provide plenty of pasture, good shelter and the highest-quality diet for their chickens and who also welcome newly born chicks on their farm — even those farmers get their chicks from hatcheries that routinely discard most of the males. So you may also want to look for a farmer that sources his or her chicks from heritage chicken breeders (see below), or you might at least inquire about the practices at the hatcheries he or she uses.
4. (Optional) The Egg Is Laid by a Heritage Breed
The eggs supplied by factory farms as well as many small, local farms come from hens that have been bred not to brood — i.e., not to want to sit on, incubate and hatch their eggs with a view to mothering a brood of chicks. The behavior, after all, is an inconvenience to commercial farmers who want their hens to be as productive as possible laying eggs rather than warming them.
Out of his flock of 3,000 hens, Mr. Waters says that only 1 will hatch 5 or 6 eggs every year. Most of Ms. Alexandre’s hens, likewise, don’t go broody, but she also keeps a small flock of heritage breeds that do. (The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), which works to conserve rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, maintains a list of heritage chicken breeds.)
This is where we enter a grayish area of right and wrong. Is it enough that the very hen who laid the infertile eggs you’re about to eat was raised humanely? Or is it wrong to eat eggs laid by a hen — however she was raised — of any breed that was explicitly created to be exploited?
I’m inclined to argue that it’s okay to eat eggs from any breed of hen as long as they were produced under otherwise happy circumstances. But for anyone who isn’t so inclined, your best bet is to get your eggs from a farmer who raises heritage breeds.
So as far as I understand, one can eat eggs without abandoning one’s ethics. The problem is that the more than 6.5 billion table eggs (i.e., eggs intended for human consumption) that are produced in this country every month are of the unethical type. So for many ethically-minded eaters, it’s simply easier to exclude eggs from their diet altogether rather than try to track down “good” eggs. But they are in fact out there for those who want them.
Photos Courtesy of Thinkstock