For a long time I ate eggs under the following assumptions:
Chickens just lay eggs anyway, so someone might as well eat them
As long as egg-laying hens are treated well, they live fairly normal and happy lives
Buying eggs doesn’t directly contribute to the killing of chickens
However, my suspicions started nagging at me. If all these things were true, then why were people opposed to eating eggs? Eventually I decided to look into it, and I realized that my assumptions had been incorrect.
The deal with laying eggs
Laying an unfertilized egg is indeed a natural process for a chicken. It’s basically like a human woman getting her period — if an egg goes unfertilized it will be passed from the body, and the next time the woman ovulates, another egg will come along for a chance to be fertilized, and so on.
In a natural setting, a hen will lay about 10-15 eggs per year. But chickens used for egg production have selectively been bred to lay eggs way more often — about 300 eggs per year. This is extremely hard on the hens’ bodies, and many suffer from osteoporosis and other health problems as a result of their egg overdrive. (More info here.) At age 18-24 months, the hens’ egg-laying rate starts to slow down, at which point they are sent to slaughter, whereas a chicken can live to be 15 years old if rescued by a sanctuary.
So even if a hen is raised in an idyllic setting (which most are not), they are still killed at an extremely young age, the constant egg laying is a major stress on them, and the transport to (and process of) slaughter can be really scary and painful. I’d rather not put a creature through that if I don’t have to.
What about the guy chickens?
But one of the most upsetting aspects of the egg industry is what happens to the male chicks.
You might suppose that the male chicks are sent off to be raised for meat, since they won’t lay any eggs. However, we’re living in a world of extremely ‘specialized’ chickens now.
Based upon consumer demand and the desire to improve margins, we’ve engineered Frankenchickens that are tailored to deliver the best consumer product, with no regard for the health, comfort, or well-being of the animal. This means that chickens raised for meat and chickens raised for egg-laying are now totally different creatures. In the US, meat chickens are bred to have grotesquely enlarged breast muscles, because Americans prefer the white meat that comes from chicken breasts. Meanwhile chickens in the egg industry are bred to lay eggs dangerously quickly, as discussed above.
So, because male chicks birthed by egg-laying hens aren’t optimized for meat, it isn’t worth it for the industry to waste resources on raising them to full size. Rather, the male chicks are killed immediately after their gender is determined. Typically this is done by sending the male chicks (fully conscious and not anesthetized) through a big meat grinder.
This is done across the board, regardless of whether the eggs are labeled free-range, organic, or humane. I’ve seen video of these chicks being ground up, and it’s just as horrible as you would think it would be. Just remembering it as I’m writing this is really, really upsetting. Ugh. To see those tiny, cheeping little chicks going in one end, and bloody chunks coming out the other end, makes me so ashamed of how we humans have chosen to use our power and ingenuity. Seriously, aren’t we better than this?
At the very least, “cute” animals are usually spared from humankind’s most brutal treatment, but unfortunately that isn’t the case for these cute little male chicks. Even if egg production didn’t bother the hens at all, I still wouldn’t want to eat eggs solely because of what is done to these poor chicks.
I’m often asked whether, as a vegan, I’d be comfortable eating the eggs from backyard chickens — either chickens I was keeping or a neighbor was keeping.
My neighbor’s hypothetical chickens
No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating eggs from my neighbor’s backyard chickens, because of a few big issues.
Most importantly, everybody who has backyard chickens at one point had to procure chicks to raise into egg-laying hens. Many of these live chicks are shipped to buyers through the mail — a process that is scary and dangerous for the chicks. Additionally, whatever company is selling these female chicks will grind all their male chicks, as discussed above. Both of these are practices that I don’t want to support.
But in addition to those inherent problems, I’ve also found that most people don’t treat their chickens as well as they tend to treat other companion animals. It’s not that people are intending to be cruel — it’s just that we’re taught to see chickens as more of a means-to-an-end, and less like a family member, than we see our dogs and cats. For instance, most people will not keep their hens past egg-laying age, since it’s no longer cost-effective or desirable to continue feeding/housing/caring for hens who are no longer producing eggs. Even if folks are willing to let their chickens stick around longer, they are often unwilling to pay for veterinary care for aging chickens, like they might otherwise do for an aging dog or cat.
Similarly, when chickens show signs of distress or need accommodations for their emotional well-being, people are often less willing to devote time, attention, and resources to addressing these issues. All of the backyard chickens I’ve personally known have displayed serious signs of stress pecking on at least one of the flockmates, but their humans didn’t take action to resolve the problem. I’m sure there are some people who keep chickens for eggs and are actually willing to provide thorough and expensive care for their non-laying hens, but it just isn’t the norm based upon what I’ve encountered.
My own hypothetical chickens
I’m totally open to adopting chickens once I’m no longer living downtown. They’re quirky, inquisitive, soft, and some of them enjoy hugs.
However, it’s extremely unlikely that any chicken I would adopt would lay eggs. Typically if people abandon their chickens, it’s because they’re past egg-laying age.
Even if I did happen to adopt a chicken who was still young enough to be laying eggs, personally I wouldn’t want to eat them (too much baggage). I’d probably do what Farm Sanctuary does, which is feed the unfertilized eggs back to the hens, to help restore nutrients lost from their overactive laying (it sounds a little weird, but chickens will naturally eat their own eggs when they’re calcium deficient). But again, the odds of that situation ever occurring are extremely small.