Eggs Ain’t Eggs

The topic that welcomes me back into my blogging – postponed due to an action packed holiday schedule back in Australia – is timely for two reasons. The first is that eggs organically became the topic of conversation in Australia a couple of times; the second – and of equal importance – in the news this week is the EU enforcing their Jan 1st ban on battery caged eggs being sold within their borders.

Caged eggs still exist in Australia – in fact they hold about 70% market share – despite most people recognising that they’re a bad idea. If egg cartons had pictures of the conditions the hens live, and said “UNNATURALLY HOUSED EGGS FROM STRESSED HENS”, clearly no-one would buy them. The labelling is misleading, and often terms that we think mean better conditions for the hens are in fact still caged eggs or an equivalent – just with an opaque name. So, a quick look through the common terms.

Cage eggs (and assume anything without a description is as bad as this) – a laying hen that is unfortunate enough to be producing eggs from a cage is subjected to living it’s entire life on the equivalent of roughly an A4 piece of paper; never, ever sees daylight or fresh air; lives in a cage with between 3 and 20 other birds; with nothing but wire mesh for flooring; gets feed an unnatural diet; and after all that only lives for about one year. Something is wrong when this situation is PERMITTED BY LAW.

Barn-laid eggs – doesn’t this invoke images of an old farmer with a straw hat wandering out to pick up a few eggs, just for you? In legality, barn-laid means caged eggs without the cages. Essentially they build massive sheds to house the hens, who hang around on the ground, all 5000 of them packed in as close as they would be in cages. The never-seeing-daylight, unnatural food and lifespan all persist.

Free-range eggs – now we’re onto something, right. This is where the chickens are running around without fences and the farmer has to coax them into a coop at night to lay your eggs. Again, reality a lot different from the image on the box. Free-range eggs only differ from Barn-laid ones in that the hens must have access to the outside. That seems OK? Well, it depends on how one defines ‘access’ – if access is one small door in a shed housing 5000 birds then the outside just became a little more difficult to reach.

‘Certified’ Organic eggs – this one can be just as confusing as the rest! It means that the hens’ feed has no chemicals or additives in it; and that chemicals and synthetics have been avoided to the last resort – especially with regards to anti-biotics. It doesn’t however, guarantee a place out in the sun for the hens – they only need to meet free-range space requirements – and although standards prohibit overcrowding one can imagine it happens on the larger scale farms.

A whole other post is probably required – books have been written in fact – about all the other horrible things humans do just to get eggs for breakfast: but briefly they include – beak cutting; restriction from any sort of natural behaviour like foraging or nesting; and pre-emptive over-use of anti-biotics. These practices would apply to all farming types aside from organic eggs, and are the result of large scale factory farming. Even organic eggs cannot escape the elephant in the cage – what happens to the chicks that are unlucky enough to be born male and therefore of no financial value? In Australia alone, 12 million male chicks are killed every year. Not a typo – 12,000,000. Not cool. They die because you and I want to eat cakes and frittatas, fact.

My own personal view is that it is hard, even for certified organic farms, to be running a successful business whilst having the animal’s welfare first and foremost – if the operation they are running is large scale. I’ve done the feeding at my uncle’s chicken shed and it’s enough work controlling a dozen hens let alone 1000. One of my main reasons for staying vegetarian is animal welfare, and I’m not sure I can justify buying eggs from anyone other than small scale producers like neighbours and friends with a few hens scratching the lawn.

In the process of writing all this I’ve realised I can be better:

– We still occasionally buy the free-range eggs (organic of course) from the larger supermarket downstairs because we feel like a chocolate brownie or something, and our carton is empty. That needs to stop.

– A good tip I’ve read, not just about eggs but all food products, is ask to visit the farm where they’re produced – if the producer says no, they’ve probably got something to hide. I’m still yet to do this at all, but I should.

Finally, here’s my main problem with eating eggs or not, and it not only applies to eggs but is a big hurdle in making a full transition to veganism : there’s a social element to food. One of the major ways my paternal family celebrates special occasions is with cake, there’s always at least two cakes on offer (sometimes for only about 7 people), and often it’s 3 or more. Is it fair to my family in the midst of singing happy birthday to ask about chickens’ living conditions? Plenty of my friends are scared at the thought of having to cook vegetarian meals, I fear a vegan path leads me towards social exclusion, at least in a culinary sense. Which is not cool, because food is the most binding of social and cultural fabric.

Whilst I wrestle with that dilemma, I’m going to visit the producers of the eggs we use at home; and be more forthcoming with conversations about eggs…for those friends who I want to cook me dinner.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy organic eggs, preferably from a farmer you know (your local farmer’s market is a good start)