Monday, April 12, 2010

The incredible, ethical egg.

When I began learning more about industrial agriculture, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to want to eat meat anymore. I have a soft spot for animals, and the idea of killing them (even for food) has always been disturbing to me. I rationalized eating animals by looking into nature. All living things die, many quite violently out in the forest or the jungle or the savannah. Perhaps it isn’t such a terrible thing that we humans prematurely end the lives of some animals to provide sustenance for ourselves, especially since we don’t chase them down and rip their throats out like, say, a cheetah might. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning breaks down in the face of the cruelty endured by most conventionally-raised animals and the detriments to the environment and human health that go along with such treatment. However, I find meat from animals raised on an ethical farm, in which the animals engage in their natural behaviors and play important roles in sustaining the farm’s ecosystem, much more palatable (no pun intended). Of course, I could just not eat meat at all (and often don’t), but my sense of right and wrong when it comes to eating meat from an animal that lived out its days in peace is much less obvious to me.

What I did not expect is the complete revulsion I now feel toward eating conventional eggs. I always looked at eggs and dairy products as the kinder animal products. I could look at a carton of eggs and visualize a label saying, “No animals were killed in the making of this food”. Although those of you better informed than myself may be rolling your eyes at my naivety, there is really no reason to expect that getting an egg from a chicken should involve torture or death. I’ve seen a few ads and brochures about the harm that comes to laying hens, but always at some kind of information booth with people sort of yelling. They gave the impression of being ‘on the fringe’, and therefore, unreliable. I could turn away from the disturbing images with the assumption that bad things certainly do happen but probably on a very small scale. Just as with meat, I really thought there was no way that torturing farm animals could be the status quo in conventional agriculture.

Most of my recent changes in attitude came from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I found his information to be more believable and less preachy or judgmental than literature I’ve received from activists. As a journalist, he has been trained to stick to the facts and cite sources. As a person (a professor at Berkeley, actually), he seems pretty normal. The book is so well done that I hesitate to pull sections out; the context is important. However, the following passage on the ethical problems with eating conventional eggs had such an effect on me, and my attitude toward eggs, that I felt compelled to share it with you. At this point in the book, Pollan is deciding whether or not to continue eating animals. He has temporarily become a vegetarian so that the inconvenience of the lifestyle change would not be relevant to his decision.

From, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (pg. 317-318):

“To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: Animals are treated as machines – “production units” - incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.

Egg operations are the worst, from everything I’ve read; I haven’t managed to actually get into one of these places since journalists are unwelcome there. Beef cattle in America at least still live outdoors, albeit standing ankle-deep in their own waste eating a diet that makes them sick. And broiler chickens, although they are bred for such swift and breast-heavy growth that they can barely walk, at least don’t spend their lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing.

That fate is reserved for the American laying hen, who spends her brief span of days piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage the floor of which four pages of this book could carpet wall to wall. Every natural instinct of this hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral “vices” that can include cannibalizing her cage mates and rubbing her breast against the wire mesh until it is completely bald and bleeding. (This is the chief reason broilers get a pass on caged life; to scar so much high-value breast meat would be bad business.) Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on the acceptance of more neutral descriptors, such as “vices” and “stereotypes” and “stress”. But whatever you want to call what goes on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can’t endure it and simply die is built into the cost of production. And when the output of the survivors begins to ebb, the hens will be “force-molted” – starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg-laying before their life’s work is done.

I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what happens when… you look. And what you see when you look is the cruelty – and the blindness to cruelty – required to produce eggs that can be sold for seventy-nine cents a dozen.”

Even now, it still upsets me. And he hasn’t even mentioned other common practices such as debeaking or the killing of male chicks…

I believe that a single step toward a food lifestyle that benefits animals, the environment, or human well-being is a worthy effort; one does not necessarily need to assess and alter every food decision to be an ethical eater. However, I do value a certain level of internal consistency. Eating an animal that was tortured on its way to my plate is simply not acceptable to me, and it seems obvious that eating eggs from tortured chickens is equally wrong. One solution would be to stop eating eggs altogether, but just as with meat, seeking out ethical eggs is a less restrictive solution to my ethical problem.

In the grocery store, there are many eggs with nice sounding words on them. Unfortunately, few if any actually mean that the hens are living the kind of lifestyle I would want. Cage-free hens, for example, are often packed just as tightly as caged hens, unable to really move about and usually debeaked, just without individual cages. In fact, a lot of phrases used to market eggs aren't regulated at all. They really could mean anything (or, perhaps more accurately, nothing). Below, I have included a chart listing the requirements for those certifications that are regulated put together by the WSPA; it is available on their website along with similar charts for other animals. According to the chart, there is no label for the kind of eggs I want, those laid by chickens living in a natural environment free from harm. However, the farm from which I purchase meat, Marin Sun Farms, does offer ethical eggs at their farmers market stall. Compared with conventional eggs, they are expensive, especially in the winter when the chickens lay far fewer eggs. I think of it as paying the real price up front rather than indirectly through farm subsidies that benefit the industrial system or damage to the environment or the myriad other expenses not reflected in the price of grocery store eggs. I paid $8 for a dozen medium eggs, and they were worth every penny. Each one was a different color: brown, cream, even light blue. They were delicious, healthier than conventional eggs, and had no lingering taste of guilt or cruelty. They are indeed, incredible, ethical eggs.


  1. thanks for such a great post Alyssa! I hope you'll come and see the chickens at Marin Sun Farms on one of our tours this summer

  2. Danny~ I would love to come up and tour the farm, meet the chickens, take some pictures, etc. I have talked about Marin Sun Farms in several posts, and it would be great for my readers to see what I'm so excited about! Speaking of readers... how did you come by my blog?

  3. Looks like the USDA Certified Organic is the most humane you can get at the grocery store. =/

    I found your blog while looking for a friend's, by googling 'ethical eats'. I'm glad I did!

  4. Theresa - Yah, grocery store options are pretty limited. In the past, I've purchased eggs that say cage-free and vegetarian-fed, but I really have no idea how those chickens are treated. Have you looked for a farm with a CSA near you? You don't actually have to live near the farm; they usually have multiple drop-off locations where you can pick up fresh produce, meat, and eggs. Farmers markets sometimes have egg-sellers as well. Good luck and thanks for reading!