For many of us growing up, watching TV, reading books and taking the weekly trip to the supermarket, eggs were just part of the daily routine. We sing songs about chickens laying "a little egg for me", to babies, read books about gathering eggs at the farm and regularly used eggs in making omelets, cakes, and other baked goods. We watch comedians and cartoons get splatted with eggs, juggle eggs and do just about every imaginable thing with eggs. And all the while we have a picture painted in our head of chickens, nestling down in their soft, warm nests and quietly laying eggs for the nice farmer who jauntily whistles a merry tune as he greets all of the hens the next morning to collect the eggs they have laid for him. Never once do we question this scenario, never once do we stop and ask, why do chickens lay eggs for us?
As a young boy I have many fond memories of visiting my local open farm and getting a small cup of seed and corn to feed to the chickens. I would run excitedly of in search of the hens and scatter seeds of them, gradually getting brave enough to try to get them to eat from my hand. Then, once my seeds were gone, I would quietly slip into the next barn and be able to hold the baby chicks, and giggle as their little feet and soft feathers tickled my hands and their adorable cheeps rang out all around the room. never once did any of this seem odd or strange, it fit my childhood vision of a farm, happy hens, cute babies, and lots of food for them to enjoy. But at second glance you start to see the cracks in the vision, the walls don't quite hold up, and the truth leaks out like smoke under a burning door.
The words of Fred C. Hadley (president of a Georgia poultry firm in the USA) have been said many times over that a hen is "an egg making machine." This phrase alone should give you some sense of the lives of these creatures, but he adds also, "The object of producing eggs is to make money. When we forget this objective, we have forgotten what it is all about." As you may have already gathered from this emotionless statement, the consequences for the hens are not good.
When it comes down to money and finances the animals lose every single time. Animal agriculture is big business and when money is on the line the backlash is swift and violent. To save money on accommodation battery hens will be crammed into small cages with up to 8-10 birds sharing the same cramped space for their entire existence. Birds do not do well in tight spaces, under stress and boredom they will cannibalize each other, hence the term pecking order. Under normal conditions this is a few aggressive pecks to show dominance and to establish dominance and borders or nest sites, but when confined to the cage the fighting has no space and can be consistent. In order to prevent death or severe injury the industry came up with a scheme to prevent this. They cut of their beaks. It started in the !940's in San Diego, where the farmer would burn away the upper beak with a blow torch to prevent birds pecking at each other. Since then the practice has evolved with a now specially designed guillotine like device with a hot blade to make the cut and prevent infection. And with its ability to 'treat' 15 birds per minute it saves time and money. However the haste at which the procedure is carried out means often sloppy work and many injuries dealt to the birds. Furthermore along with the burned nostrils and mutilations, the hens that have an accurate and successful debeaking suffer boils and burns that cause pain for weeks on end. According to professor F W Rogers Brambell appointed by the British Government as a zoologist looking at this procedure, "between the horn and the bone is a thin layer of highly sensitive soft tissue," "The hot knife used when debeaking cuts through this complex of horn, bone and sensitive tissue, causing extreme pain."
On most factory farms, female chicks will be debeaked twice. Poultry Specialist Dick Wells, head of Britain's National institute of Poultry Husbandry recommends debeaking "at 5 to 10 days of age," and again when they are moved from the growing facility to the laying housing "around 12 and 18 weeks old." Another thing to point out is that this method prevents the aggressive actions of infighting but does not remove the psychological trigger and stress that causes it.
The suffering of laying hens begins early in life. As is obvious the egg industry is only interested in producing eggs and making profit, which means that chicken who do not produce eggs, or whose egg production drops are not profitable and surplus to industry requirements. As a result of this mindset all male chicks are waste products and are killed within the first few days of life. A 'chickpuller' is someone employed to sex new born chicks and separate males and females, the males are then killed. Some companies use gas, others are dumped alive into plastic sacks or bins and suffocated under the weight of the other male chicks being dumped on top of them, others still are ground up alive to be turned into feed for their sisters. There are no records of the numbers of males killed every year but if you assume the logical 50/50 ratio of males to females then the numbers are in the billions.
And for the females their lives are longer but no more pleasant. In the industrialized world of egg production hens suffer more than just overcrowding and de-beaking. Many will suffer from a calcium deficiency with the strain of constantly producing an egg every day of their lives, and many more suffer from anemia again from industrialized egg production placing such heavy demand on their small fragile bodies. It is not uncommon to find battery hens with broken wings, injured combs and broken or injured legs and feet. In many cases with such few farm hands to look after so many chickens the dead birds are left beside their living cage mates until the time comes for what the eggs industry and department of agriculture calls 'depopulation'. In other words they are not removed until the hens are considered spent and the entire flock are sent to slaughter. With even the Department of the environment, agriculture and rural affairs in Northern Ireland stating that, "At depopulation at the end of a cycle, thoroughly clean the building and all equipment.. remove all surplus feed, dead birds and litter". If left alone to thrive and given suitable housing and food a laying hen can live for up to 8 or even 10 years, in reality if they are born on a factory farm they will see less than 2 years at best. All spent inside a cage, with the only daylight they will ever see being the light between the barn and the truck that takes them to slaughter.
Currently there are more than 6.6 billion chickens used for egg production Globally. With China, the USA and India as the largest contributors. In the UK the most recent figures come from 2011 with more than 38 million hens involved in egg production. On average a hen will lay 200 eggs per year according to global figures. This means that they lay an egg on average every 43 hours. And with many factory farms aiming for over 300 eggs per bird per year that is almost an egg a day. Samuel Butler once said that "A hen is only an eggs's way of making another egg." And in the modern sense of animal agriculture, this is the way we view all farmed female animals, just a means to make more in the industrialized system of cruelty that sees over 56,000,000,000 animals killed every year for food. And when you look at the figures of hen egg production, their living conditions and lifespan, its clear that to many in the egg business, they are nothing more than the machine that Mr Hadley referred to.
And yet I hear you cry that you buy Organic, free range, cage free eggs, so surely the suffering is less? And i agree, the term cage free may sound good at first, suggesting that the hens are not crammed in tiny cages and might give many of us images of hens exploring and scratching in the grass and enjoying dustbaths, in reality it simply means what it says no cages. They will be crammed instead into a barn with no access to natural light or the outdoors. Free Range again sounds better, 'free' being the key word that jumps out, but again the truth disappoints. All that a farm needs to have to be free range is to provide the chickens access to the outdoors, but the male chicks will still be killed at a day old, the rest killed once their best years are behind them and all end up in slaughter houses, hanging upside down by their legs to have their throats cut and feathers plucked. Organic is another term used often and again inspires images of hope but alas it fails to protect them. It only mentions the food fed to chickens, forbids any hormone or antibiotic treatments and yet says nothing about their care or treatment, other than they must use organic bedding if it is provided. So once again the marketing and public image is not what goes on behind closed doors.
But what about eating eggs? Are they actually good for us? If we could find eggs from a well cared for and respected flock, say backyard hens, or a local animal sanctuary, are they actually good for us?
First of lets look at protein. For our entire lives we have been told that eggs are an excellent source of protein. We have watched Anrold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and countless other famous muscle heads eat eggs raw, boiled and every other way possible for the protein. Even Disney's Gaston sings about eating "four dozen eggs every morning to help me get large." But is this really the case? On average eggs contain about 5 grams per egg, or 12.8 grams per 100 gram serving. But that's not very much when you consider that 100 grams of quinoa contains 14.5 grams, chickpeas have 19 grams, kidney beans have 24 grams, peanuts 26 grams and Seitan has a whopping 75 grams per 100 gram serving. Not to mention pumpkin seeds, tempeh, black beans, mung beans, soy beans and almonds which all have significantly more than 13 grams of protein per 100 grams.
Secondly we have always been told things like " eggs are the breakfast of champions" or "eggs do the body good." But in reality not only are eggs a poor source of protein, but they are not legally allowed to be advertised as "healthy." Both the USDA and EU law forbid the use of any advertising or slogans to refer to eggs as 'healthy', 'safe', 'part of a balanced diet' healthful' or 'nutritious'. Why? Because they are not.
Eggs contain high levels of saturated fats, cholesterol and naturally occurring salmonella. In fact eating just one egg will give you more than 70% of your recommend ed safe level of cholesterol for the day at 180mg which is 3 times more than steak (58mg). High levels of cholesterol in your diet are directly related to heart disease, strokes and diabetes three of the leading causes of death in the Western World. Furthermore they contain 1.5-2 grams of saturated fat per egg. And with safe levels of saturated fat intake sitting at 15-20 grams that is 10 percent of the safe level per egg. Combine the cholesterol and saturated fat intake on a regular basis and you increase your risk further still. According to a study by Chai Y, Chang, Lee JE, et al, participants who consumed the most eggs had 80 percent higher coronary artery calcium scores, a measure of heart disease risk. (2015)
As for salmonella it is estimated that eggs cause more than 140,000 cases a year of salmonella poisoning world wide.
Eggs have also been linked to many forms of cancer especially Colon and Prostate cancer with studies showing that eating just 2 and a half eggs per week, increases your risk of prostate cancer by 81%. in fact our gut bacteria can use eggs to accelerate cancer growth. When we consume foods which contain high levels of Carnitine and choline such as red meats, eggs and dairy, our bodies convert them into trimethylamine (TMA) or Trimethylamine Oxide (TMAO). Both TMA and TMAO have been linked to atherosclerosis which causes heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases. But TMAO and TMA can form nitrosamines which are carcinogenic and strongly linked to increased cancer cell growth and acclerated development, with studies showing links to increased breast, prostate, colon and stomach cancers as a result of high levels of TMAO and nitrosamines in the blood.
In conclusion its pretty clear regardless of if you are concerned only about your own health, or the well being of these animals that we should stop eating eggs, supporting eggs industries and abusing hens to produce eggs. There are many alternatives to eggs for baking that are widely available to us all. From using bananas, flax seeds or store bought alternatives it has never been easier to change our habits. And if you are worrying about where to get protein at breakfast try these ideas, all have more protein and none of the cholesterol, TMAOs or salmonella.
Two slices of wholemeal toast, sliced banana and some peanut butter (15 grams)
80 grams of porridge oats, soy milk and a handful of blueberries (14.5 grams)
100 grams Scrambled Tofu, onions and a round of wholemeal toast (18- 20 grams)
So lets review, there is no such thing as a healthy, safe or nutritious egg, they are not a good source of protein, almost all eggs produced are the result of immense cruelty and suffering on the part of the animals involved, and they contain high levels of saturated fats, cholesterol, cancer causing agents and salmonella...
I think its time we left the eggs to the chickens. Don't you?