`The Myth of Harmlessness: The Rotten Truth About the Egg Industry

In the piece I wrote last month about the dairy industry, I described how when I went vegetarian as a 15-year-old for reasons of compassion, I thought that cutting out meat was all I needed to do to remove my support of the food industry’s brutal treatment of animals. For 13 years, I labored under the mistaken belief that obtaining an animal’s flesh was the only cruelty inflicted on them through agribusiness. As I read more and learned more, and, thankfully, was exposed to more people who educated me about the reality of what happens behind the scenes to bring animal by-products to the plate, my misconceptions were shattered, one after the next. The industries that bring dairy, eggs and other by-products to market not only buttress and make animal agribusiness profitable, they are themselves very cruel institutions, yet many well-intentioned people don’t realize this.

As with dairy, the egg industry also benefits from this false narrative of benign, bountiful fecundity, the notion that eggs, like dairy, “just happens” so we might as well put good use to it. Like milk, the egg is also laden with mythology from cultures around the world and ingrained notions that can make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

If milk symbolizes the nectar of life, the egg represents the pulsing potentiality of it, ever-ready to crack and offer vibrant new life from her protective shell. The cosmic egg, or world egg, is a widespread origin story stitched across many world cultures as represented by the fertilized ovum from which civilization emerges, often hatching first a primordial god, like Ra, as the Ancient Egyptians believed, or Brahma emerging from a golden egg in Vedic mythology. Phanes, the primeval deity who created the other Greek gods, was said to have hatched out of the Orphic egg. Even today, the egg — elegant, simple, universal and full of possibility — remains an elemental symbol of life around the world.

In the United States, with our tendency to romanticize a more pastoral and bygone era, the mother hen with her clutch of eggs or fuzzy, peeping chicks going every which way is an enduring (and endearing) symbol, a representation of committed, stalwart motherhood if ever there was one. Picture books from earliest childhood are bursting with this imagery. A mother hen’s dedication to guarding her eggs and safeguarding her chicks is the stuff of legend but not myth. This association is borne of the mother hen’s deep commitment to her progeny. In fact, the noun brood is brought to us by the Proto-Germanic brod, referring to the offspring of egg-laying animals, but, since the 16th century, it has also been used as a verb for the act of of a female bird sitting on her eggs to ensure their hatching or to describe someone who is in a stubbornly moody, agitated state of mind. A hen who is “broody” is one who is territorial about anyone coming close to her eggs, prone to vocal outbursts, defensiveness, guardedness of her nest and general unsettledness. A hen who is broody takes her job so seriously, it’s not uncommon for her to pluck out her own chest feathers to be a better conduit of warmth for her incubating eggs. While the word “chicken” has been used as a pejorative to describe someone who is cowardly since the 17th century, hens are, in fact, renowned for their attuned and fierce maternal instincts, putting their puffed-up bodies between their chicks and the most aggressive predators.

Eggs are also abundantly used in English idioms: An egghead is an intellectual who is perhaps a bit too cerebral while lacking common sense; a good egg is someone who is kind and decent; a bad egg is, well, you guessed it, and a rotten egg is the last to reach a destination; egging someone on is being a passive-aggressive instigator. We know that contributing to your nest egg is looking towards your future with fiscal responsibility; walking on eggshells is being careful around the easily riled. (Still need convincing? Just take a peep at all these egg-related idioms.)

It is worth noting that while eggs and chickens are so deeply woven into the fabric of our language and culture, and the image of the mother hen with her chicks is so reassuring and quaint, the actual birds are treated with such abject disdain and cruelty. Egg-laying hens, referred to by the industry as layers, are among the most severely abused of those who are fodder for our appetites, and this is saying something considering how low that yardstick already is. Put aside the notions you might have about a bucolic farm with a mother hen and her fluffy yellow chicks pecking for grubs in the dirt. The truth is far from our childhood picture books.

According to research published in the journal Animal Cognition, chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas and there are many functional similarities in the brains of birds and mammals; further, there is no evidence that the cognitive or perceptual abilities of domestic chickens have been substantially altered by their long-ago domestication from the red jungle fowl of India and Southeast Asia. From their communication — it has been noted that the chicken communicates at least 24 distinct vocalizations, including different calls for aerial and terrestrial threats — to their nuanced use of cognitive skills within the social domain, there is much more to a chicken’s complex inner-world than most people realize.

Despite their sensitive natures, these self-aware beings almost always get their start as chicks at a hatchery. They are not hatched in a nest under their mothers’ soft, protective feathers. They are born in decidedly less hospitable incubators. This is true of industrially-raised layers as well as ones who will eventually produce the eggs for backyard egg enthusiasts and the “free-range” and organic industries. It is estimated that 95% of the 300 million hens currently in egg production in the U.S. at any given time will live their lives in crowded, cramped battery cages in large, dark warehouses, where their sensitive feet often become sore, cracked and deformed from standing on the wire cage floor day and night. The hen’s claws can become long, thin, twisted without a proper scratching surface and can even curl around the wire floor, entrapping — and starving — the bird and making her unable to defend herself from other agitated hens in her cage.

The vast majority of hens raised for egg production are kept in small battery cages with 5–10 other birds, so cramped they are unable to stretch their wings or sometimes even turn around. They are also denied their natural instincts for sunbathing, nesting, preening, perching, scratching, foraging, dust-bathing, roosting, stretching and exploring, which results in stressed neighbors who have been driven to aggressive behaviors. They will live in cages with their own waste, and, if in a lower cage, the additional waste of higher level cages, the overwhelming smell of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide irritating their eyes and making them susceptible to bacterial respiratory infections. These egg-production facilities can range in size from 100,000 to more than a million hens, with these birds, inclined to abide by complex social structures by nature, producing about 75 billion eggs in the U.S. each year.

Left to her own, a wild hen will lay between 10 to 15 eggs per year as egg production is a very energy-intensive and depleting process; in stark contrast, a hen raised as a layer has been genetically manipulated to endure laying 250–300 eggs a year, more than double the production of the 1930s. Even with genetic manipulation, this accelerated egg production is disastrous for their tiny bodies, commonly causing osteoporosis and bone fractures, skeletal paralysis and severe reproductive disorders, like tumors of the oviduct, peritonitis, egg binding (which happens when large eggs get stuck) and the slow, agonizing torture of uterine prolapse, which happens when the uterus pushes out of the hen’s vent, the outside opening of the cloaca. Layer hens have essentially become egg factories: engineered to mass produce large eggs against their own bodies’ best interests. Hens are further manipulated through the common industry practice of forced molting, in which food and sometimes water is withheld for anywhere from a week to up to 14 days (or longer) in order to shock a hen’s laying cycle into producing more eggs and thus profitability. This period of forced starvation, during which time a hen often loses 25–35 percent of her starting weight, may occur two or three times during a hen’s short life.

Just as the dairy industry has the unwanted but unavoidable consequence of male calves as a biological necessity, so does the egg industry have an “end product” that is worthless to them. With no place for male chicks in egg production, it is estimated that over 260 million cockerel chicks in the U.S. each year are killed as soon as they have had their sexes determined by industry workers very shortly after hatching. In the U.S., the unwanted male chicks can be killed in any crude and cheap method available because they, like all birds, are not protected by even the very low standards of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (commonly known as the Humane Slaughter Act): suffocation, maceration in high-speed grinders, asphyxiation and even stomping are all acceptable slaughter methods for these newborn chicks, peeping for their mothers but worthless to an industry.

The stress of increased egg production and crowded living conditions aren’t the only cruelties inflicted on a hen’s sensitive and delicate body. Debeaking is a standard industry-wide practice, done to reduce the aggression and cannibalism common among birds stressed by confinement. Known euphemistically as beak trimming by the industry, debeaking amputates ½ to ⅔ off the top beak and ¼ to ⅓ off the bottom beak, using a hot blade to cut and cauterize without anesthesia or follow-up care. As with all birds, the beak of the chicken is a complex sensory organ with numerous nerve endings, much like a human fingertip, and at the end of the beak is a specialized cluster of highly sensitive mechanoreceptors, called the bill tip organ. This permanent trauma to the beak is intensely painful, and debeaked chickens can struggle to eat and drink. It is standard industry practice to debeak chicks at one day old.

Many people feel they can avoid supporting the common cruelties inflicted on chickens by buying “humane” eggs, but debeaking is allowed under many so-called humane labels and regardless, even eggs from backyard hens originated at a hatchery that slaughters newborn male chicks as an ordinary practice. Inside cage-free facilities, one can find birds that are intensively confined without cages but still with scant little room; the legal requirement of the free-range label only has to mean that thousands of hens crammed into a facility might have an open door in the warehouse and an unspecified amount of time to outdoor access few will ever experience. Don’t be deceived by the wholesome packaging: when living beings are considered commodities, the bottom line is their profitability to both large and small operations. As with organic, grass-fed cows used in the dairy industry, the end of the road for even the chickens on quaint little farms is slaughter.

After about 18 months of having her body used as an egg-production unit to the facility that owns her, a hen is usually considered spent. Her body, fragile and depleted, is no longer producing a high volume of eggs. While an egg-laying hen might have a natural lifespan of 5–8 years, she will be killed before the age of two. When she has become a liability, she and others like her will be gathered for transport and slaughter, first collected by a “catcher,” who grabs up to four hens at a time and carries them upside-down by their brittle legs to be tossed or dropped into transport crates. The name of the game here is speed, and according one study, nearly 30% of hens had broken bones after transport. Exposed to extreme temperatures of heat and cold on their way to the slaughterhouse, which could be many hours away, the hens also endure the stress of being crowded as well as noise and motion, not to mention aggression from other agitated birds. It may also be the only time they breathe fresh air or see the sun through the small slots in the transport truck.

As mentioned above with regard to male chicks, because birds are not included in the Humane Slaughter Act, there is no federal law in the U.S. requiring them to be “rendered insensible to pain” prior to being shackled and killed. It is estimated that 95% of land animals slaughtered for food in the U.S. are chickens and so they, like turkeys and ducks, have virtually no protections in slaughter, meager and empty as they are for other farmed animals. At the slaughterhouse, workers will unload the crates of hens, then they will be quickly hung upside-down in metal shackles and moved by conveyor through an electrical water-bath designed to stun them. After this, an automated knife will cut their throats and they will bleed out, still upside-down, until it is time to be dragged through the scalding tank, which prepares their bodies for mechanical feather-plucking. Even though they were not raised as broiler hens, their bruised and damaged flesh still has some value to the industry so it is often shredded or diced for the companion animal food industry or used in cheap canned products.

In addition to the ecological destruction, the cruelty to workers common in agribusiness (including human trafficking, especially of minors), and the increased risk of serious foodborne illness like salmonella, we know that, despite the marketing, egg production is not a harmless and benign industry, especially when we also understand the needless cruelties this industry inflicts upon billions of innocent hens and their chicks.

Egg production is not kind. Egg production is not innocent. Egg production is violent.