How ethical are your eggs?

Some argue that we shouldn’t eat eggs because of the cruel way in which they reach our plates. Angelique Ruzicka investigates whether it’s possible to eat eggs ethically.

The humble egg has many uses: English breakfasts would be dull without them, they’re often an essential cake mix ingredient, we garnish some dishes with them and painters use them as binders for applying pigments. Eggs are eaten in a variety of ways: fried, boiled, poached etc., and they are used as an ingredient in a number of products and other foods such as pasta and marshmallows.

There’s certainly no law against eating eggs but many activists trying to get people to stop eating them. According to the website millions of chickens are killed every year. “We all know that the egg industry is one of the cruelest industries out there,” claims a write up on the site, linking back to the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website, which has several articles on how chickens are abused by the poultry industry. But how cruel is the industry in South Africa, and is there something that can be done about it?

According to the South African Poultry Association (SAPA) the local egg industry has a flock of about 25 million laying hens, which help to produce over seven billion eggs a year. Only a fraction of the eggs (less than four percent) are produced by hens that enjoy free-range conditions. The rest are laid in intensive conditions where hens are given a space no larger than an A4 piece of paper.

Factory hens lead a solitary and often low quality life. The cages they’re in provide little room to move and they often don’t have access to the outdoors. Some are debeaked (also known as beak trimming) to prevent injurious pecking, such as cannibalism, feather pecking and vent pecking.

If you think buying free-range gets you off the hook entirely – you’re mistaken. “Chickens raised in free range conditions experience a similar fate to those raised in factory farms,” points out Brett Thompson, national program manager of Meat-Free Mondays SA, adding: “Male chicks have no value to the egg industry and are killed on the day they are born. This is standard practice regardless of whether the eggs are free range or caged. Hens also meet an untimely end at the age of just 71 weeks (the life expectancy of a chicken can be as high as eight years) because their egg laying capacity becomes unproductive.”

Toni Brockhoven, Beauty Without Cruelty national chairperson, concurs: “Male chicks are ground alive by the tens of thousands as they are useless to the egg industry and too ‘small’ breasted for the flesh, and similarly, [we] kill chickens when they have outlived their usefulness; there is no such thing as ethical. We certainly don’t need eggs.”

Shifts in the industry
The good news is that some corporations, politicians and celebrities are campaigning for change. According to a report in the New York Times published this month, fast food giant McDonalds is set to phase out the use of eggs from hens housed in cages. The company uses around two billion shell and liquid eggs annually, which works out to four percent of the 43.56 billion eggs produced in the United States last year.

Even some celebrities are weighing in on the matter. Back in 2007, American wholesaler Costco made a pledge that it would start sourcing its eggs from places that had cage free hens. However, some reports claim that since making this pledge Costco has done little to change the situation and now actors like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are demanding answers.

Pitt allegedly wrote to Costco’s CEO Craig Jelinek, saying: “As you know, these birds producing eggs for your shelves are crammed five or more into cages that are not large enough for even one hen to spread her wings.” He adds: “In these cruel cages, the animals’ muscles and bones atrophy from years of immobilisation.”

Meanwhile, Germany’s agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, aims to eliminate all male chick killing by 2017 through the funding of sex determination technology prior to the chick being hatched. This means that male chicks could then be killed prior to them being hatched. They are commonly killed when they are a day old with the use of grinders or are gassed. Grinders are said to kill chicks in a matter of seconds, whereas using the gas method can take anywhere up to two minutes to end a bird’s life.

It’s not clear whether other countries will soon follow suit but one reason why the industry could be loath to switch to such a technique is that using sex determination technology is deemed too expensive.

What is South Africa doing?
Many people believe that they can live a guilt free existence if they buy ‘free range’ or ‘organic’. As such the consumer led demand for eggs that are free range and organic has been met to a large extent. Retailers such as Woolworths, Shoprite and Pick n Pay have long since supplied more free range produce.

However, it appears we are a long way off from stopping the culling of male chicks in South Africa. According to Meat Free Mondays, no active policy (such as the one proposed by Germany’s agricultural minister) is being implemented in South Africa: “This is of no surprise in a country where poultry is exempted from The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 2000,” it says.

What can I do?
If what you’ve read here today makes you want to take more action there are things you can do:

1. Give it all up: There is a growing call from some camps that we should give up eating eggs and meat entirely. Brockhoven points out that we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we need meat and eggs. “More and more people are realising that the dairy and meat boards have had an agenda by pushing the fact we ‘need’ dairy and flesh products, and choosing to stop being a part of other’s suffering and deaths. Animals do not give us anything, it is taken!”

2. Cut down: Others allow for a softer more gradual approach in cutting meat and poultry products from diets. Meat Free Mondays is a movement encouraging people to give up meat just one day a week (Mondays). They do however point out that more South Africans are choosing to eat plant-based foods, which are free from meat, egg and dairy. They argue that changing your diet in this way is not only good for ethical and environmental reasons but that it’s healthier too.

3. Buy free range: For those of us that simply can’t give up eggs buying free range goes some way to ensuring that eggs are sourced from ‘happier’ hens. Major retailers such as Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Shoprite sell free range or ‘pasture raised’ eggs.

4. Source eggs from humane farmers: Happy Hens in Wellington in the Western Cape, for instance, say their eggs are produced by pasture-reared field foraging fowls who live a natural life and roost in a snug egg-mobile at sunset.

5. Raise your own chickens: You’d need plenty of space and time to care for chickens. Remember that chickens can live for years, so be prepared to have them for a long time. Also, if you have other pets, like dogs, this could be problematic as some dogs instinctively kill them as one backyard chicken farmer discovered.

Many horrendous animal husbandry tactics are being adopted by farmers to mass produce eggs and to save on costs so that millions of people can enjoy them every day. For now though, it appears it’s up to the consumer to force the industry’s hand by either abstaining from eating eggs or purchasing eggs from humane farmers.