Are free-range chicken eggs ethical? Humane? Vegan, even?
My story about Penny the hen and her life as a laying hen in a battery cage is tragic, but not necessarily surprising to many people these days. There has been an increasing amount of education about the cruel conditions in which factory-farmed animals have to live, which has driven many omnivores to purchase animal products that come from more humanely raised animals. But is there really such a thing?
I’ll talk more generally about the myth of humane omnivorism in a future post. For now, let’s focus on pasture-raised chickens, featuring the story of Freta, the free-range laying hen. But first, let me get this problem out of the way…
The cage-free deception
You may be aware that the label “natural” means nothing when you see it on any kind of food. If you’ve done any research about the “organic” label, you will know that it does not mean what the general public have been told that it means.
Food companies play all kinds of shenanigans when it comes to trying to placate consumers in order to turn them into customers, and there is no exception with store-bought eggs.
“Cage-free” sounds like a much better choice than conventional eggs that come from battery hens, right? However, just like their caged sisters, cage-free hens have their beaks clipped off (this often causes lingering pain, remember?), are not fed a natural diet, and are just as subject to abuses by the farm workers as are conventional hens.
They may not live in cages, but the space allotted each individual bird is not much more than their caged cohorts. This means they do not have much room to move, and are susceptible to disease thanks to constant exposure to their own feces and urine. They also are forced to molt via temporary starvation, and lay more eggs than is natural and therefore get depleted in calcium – leading to fractured bones later in life – and also are at just a high a risk of experiencing prolapsed oviducts (when the channel where the egg comes out, also comes out of the hen’s body).
Finally, their lives are not any longer than caged hens, and they die just as cruelly as their factory-farmed cohorts.
What about the label “free-range?” Or “happy”? The only time you can know that an egg comes from a truly free-range chicken is when you go to the farm and see hens freely walking about with plenty of space per bird.
But is even this kind of situation truly ethical? Is it vegan to consume eggs from backyard chickens who are well-taken care of and have plenty of room to roam and forage from?
Let’s listen to the story of Freta, the free-range chicken, for some of the answers.
I was born in an incubator, with no mother in sight. That made me sad. What made me even sadder was that as each of my brothers were born, they were taken out of the incubator, never to be seen again. This confused me, because I know that without those warm lights imitating the warmth of my would-be mother’s feathers, I would get very cold, very quickly. Were my brothers transferred to a different incubator for males? Or were they – ugh. I don’t even want to think about the alternative.
Despite not having a mother around, I had a pretty comfortable life for the next couple of weeks. The food wasn’t all that great, but I got my fill of it, plus I had a comfortable space to sleep and room to move around.
One day, the man who fed us and made sure we had enough water did something horrifying. He picked me up and put me into a box with several other of my sisters! There went all our space. We tried to tell him we didn’t like what was happening, but he ignored us and shut the lid on the box. It would have been completely dark in the box if it hadn’t been for the airholes that let in a little bit of light.
I was scared. Where was the food and water? Why were we in here? Did we do something wrong, and were now being punished?
It got worse when the box got moved and tumbled about over the next couple of days. About halfway through the first day, we settled down and resigned ourselves to our fate, trying to sleep and not bump into each other the best we could.
Finally, I felt someone pick up the box, carry it somewhere, and set it down again. Slowly, the top of the box opened. A smiling woman peered down at us, talking to us in a high-pitched voice. Two other faces appeared, and one by one the three humans took us out and set us in a large cage inside some kind of building. We all immediately went for the grain that was spread around the cage, and the container of water.
That wasn’t too bad, except that over the next couple of weeks we grew and the cage grew more and more cramped. One day, the woman opened the cage. We were scared at first, but after a few minutes we were all walking around, clucking and exploring what we would come to know as our coop. The only thing is, there was no food in there. If we were going to eat, we would have to go out into the open field beyond.
And I thought I was scared before! My natural instinct is to be in a place that has a lot of trees where I can hide from my predators, but this area had no trees at all. Sure, it was full of nice, green grass and tasty weeds – as well sumptuous grasshoppers and other bugs – but it was much too open for my taste.
I soon learned, however, that if I didn’t want to starve to death I would have to go out into this open field to eat. Except during the winter when we were allowed to stay in the coop and eat grain, I always felt a little scared to be out on the pasture while I was living there. My fears were later justified when one day, a neighboring dog got over the fence into our field and killed two of my sisters.
Not too long after we arrived at that place, we began to lay eggs. The first time – and the second, third, fourth, maybe more – I realized I was going to lay an egg, I called for a rooster. I couldn’t wait to hatch my own baby chick! But the rooster never came. I had to lay my eggs anyway. I didn’t know at the time that a chick couldn’t form inside my egg without a rooster, and so I still looked forward to hatching out some babies.
How angry and shocked I was when the small humans came into the coop and took my first egg away! I scolded and scolded, but they wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t long before I realized that the humans were always going to take away my eggs and never let me hatch.
I discussed this fact with my sisters, and we complained about it together. But in the end, we all agreed there was nothing we could do. If we tried to go anywhere else, we might get killed by a big, bad creature out in the open pasture. And our coop was the only safe place to roost at night, since there were very few trees around.
Constantly stressed during the day when out feeding, angry and sad in the morning when my eggs are taken away. I once heard the woman call our eggs “free range.” I’m not sure what that means, but I do know this: I am anything but free.
Why pasture-raised chicken eggs are neither vegan nor “humane”
The story above should give you some insight as to why eggs from pasture-raised chickens are never vegan, no matter how well they are cared for. The following points clarify and add to the issues alluded to in Freta’s story.
#1. Breeding domesticated animals is not vegan.
Most people who have free-range laying hens purchased them from breeders. This is not vegan. It supports the continuation of animal exploitation.
#2. To use an animal for any purpose is akin to slavery.
I don’t care to use the words “abolition”, “murder” or “slavery” in relation to animals, because they are really specialized legal terms referring to the treatment of humans. However, when someone buys – or even rescues – a chicken for the purpose of eventually getting eggs from it, this is animal exploitation, which is analogous to human slavery.
No chicken in its right mind would give a human permission to take its eggs. Eggs are for propagating their species, not for feeding people.
#3. Chickens are rainforest animals.
Surprised? I was too when I first learned that about ten years ago. But yes, they are. As such, they instinctively dislike wide open spaces – even if the wide open space is a fenced-in suburban backyard. They need trees, and lots of them, in order to feel safe from predators.
Researchers have tested levels of the stress hormone cortisol in free-range chickens and discovered them to be higher than is healthy. Why? The hens must constantly be on their guard for predators because they don’t feel safe. They are not in their natural habitat.
How ethical or humane is it to raise animals outside of their natural habitat?
The incredible, deadable egg
No one who has studied nutrition will deny that eggs from free-range hens are a nutritious food. But what about the cholesterol in the yolks? If you’re like me, you’ve heard the controversies. One study will supposedly show that egg consumption is good for you. The next will show that it raises the risk of heart disease and strokes.
In a study from a couple of years ago, scientists found that the more eggs people consumed per week, the greater the arterial plaque levels. (This plaque is what can lead to heart attacks and strokes.) They concluded that when it comes to heart disease, egg yolk consumption is nearly as deadly as smoking.
Of course, that study had its share of animal-eating critics. One of those stated that “it is extremely important to understand the differences between ‘association’ and ‘causation.’”
In other words, the egg study results associated higher risk of heart disease with egg consumption, rather than proving that egg consumption causes higher risk of heart disease.
Welcome to the world of studies. Do you know how many studies that have “proven” the health benefits of egg consumption based their conclusions on association rather than causation? All of them!
This is why it’s dangerous to take one study and say, “Look! This shows that X is healthful/Y is harmful.” Rather, the correct approach is to look at the range of studies done on a particular subject or testing a particular theory. This is called epidemiological research, and is much more accurate than examining individual studies by themselves.
Turns out, when you do that in the world of nutrition, animal product consumption – even occasional, and including eggs – has been strongly linked with a variety of diseases. A diet void of any animal products – including the supposedly healthy oily fish, such as salmon – has been strongly linked with all-around improved health and longevity.
So, how free are those free-range eggs?
Chickens forced to live in unnatural habitats, that usually come from breeders, and that essentially have their babies continually stolen from them to force them to continue to lay.
Oh, and did I mention that bird eggs come out of the same place that their feces does? Yum!
Free-range hens may have a lot healthier diet than their factory-farmed counterparts, and they may not suffer nearly as much disease or injuries. But they are not free animals. And as long as they are not freely giving their eggs, we are exploiting them. And that is not ethical, moral, or vegan.
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