By James McWilliams
It’s Easter and, in honor of some strange mash-up of religion and commercial culture, millions of eggs will be treated as the moral equivalent of trash. Calls for plastic eggs will go unheeded under the impression that they’re “inauthentic,” as if belief in a bunny delivering chicken eggs is somehow an example of authenticity. Anyway, not my favorite holiday, Easter.
The industrial egg complex promotes eggs as if they were as essential to human life as air and water. Easter becomes an opportunity to illuminate the healthful impacts of our ova-obession, one too often, in the industry’s eyes, threatened by dubious references to the nastiest word in the egg industry’s language: cholesterol. Even those who should know better routinely succumb to the industry’s rhetorical project. Last summer, a writer at Atlantic.com explained, “The dangers of cholesterol are over-hyped, and we can’t underestimate the value of unprocessed, high-mineral foods.” (So, the production of an egg is not a “process”?)
What’s not overhyped—what’s really ignored—are the welfare atrocities obscured by the elegant simplicity of an egg. Even the most educated consumers eat eggs under the assumption that no blood was spilled to produce the yellow goo on their toast. They know nothing about the fact that, at the hatcheries that provide egg-layers, male chicks are tossed alive into grinders or gassed to death. Or that their bodies are recycled into value-added organic fertilizer or feed. Every egg yolk runs with the blood of a terrified male chick.
Life for the female survivors is marked by systematic exploitation. The birds are debeaked, jammed into crates so tight they cannot spread their wings, and are molted (underfed) to pump out eggs at a rate conducive to market demand. These birds develop osteoporosis, uterine prolapse, and lung disorders from the toxic ammonia wafting around them. Thus life goes on for about 10 months until, typically, production drops. Then it’s the hen’s turn to be killed. When that day comes the hens are tossed into trucks—animal welfare laws do not apply to chickens so they usually arrive at the slaughterhouse with broken bones—and sent to death so school kids can eat chicken strips and grow obese.
Consumers who choose free-range or pastured eggs (or even backyard eggs) are equally complicit in the systemic exploitation endemic to the chicken industry. Conditions might (sometimes) be improved for chickens in non-industrial settings, but consumers are still affirming the cultural practice of eating the unfertilized eggs of an owned animal and, by doing so, they implicitly empower the industrial producers to work even harder to churn out more eggs for more people (and industries) who are always going to seek the cheapest omelette. Can you imagine Americans sourcing all Easter eggs from “humane” farms? Of course not. And the reason is obvious: at the end of the day the egg is an object, and homo economicus will always behave as predictably as gravity.
But the problems with non-industrial egg production go beyond this abstract criticism. The hard reality is that all the feel-good descriptions—free range, pastured, pampered, etc.—are, in practice, less humane than they appear to be. Whenever humans handle animals for profit—be it cultural or commercial profit—the results will be a less than appetizing example of exploitation cynically characterized as benevolence. Consider this account of a family-owned, organic, free-range chicken farm (excerpt is from Jewel Johnson’s Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary):
Looking past the hens at the gate I saw endless chaos. The sound of screaming birds was never ending, and the building was so long I couldn’t see anywhere near to the end. There was no straw, and there was no wood to perch on. There was nothing natural in that building other than death and suffering.
None of these details would make it to the label. The author’s general impression of suffering was soon manifested in an individual chicken:
I looked down before taking a step to find a sick bird hunched down with her face on the floor. Her neck was dangling down as if she was in sorrow. I scooped her up and head out of the building. I looked around for anyone to let them know they had a sick bird, to find no one. I took her to my certified avian veterinarian to see what we could do for her. She was severely dehydrated and emaciated. Her beak was clipped short and it looked raw, leading me to believe she was just unable to eat due to the mutilation of beak clipping from the hatchery she came from. I begged my vet to do anything to help her.
That’s what happens on a farm where animals are treated comparatively well. I do not want to suggest that there aren’t farms that are more attentive to the welfare of hens. There are. I do, however, want to reiterate that any example of humane-treatment will always be the exception that proves the rule: when hens are owned by humans to produce a good for human use, they will never be treated with the dignity that they deserve. More to the point, they will almost always be stripped of all dignity so we can waste their bodily by-products on a holiday ritual that asks us to take a bunny hiding eggs seriously enough to kill untold numbers of real chickens.