Slapping ‘free range’ on a box of eggs simply hides the catalogue of routine horrors that are allowed under this reassuring banner.
Meat eaters may think vegans look down on them – but actually no one is more scornful of carnivores than the meat industry that feeds them. While frontline workers slaughter 22 million animals each day in the UK alone, teams in the back office rebrand those carcasses, packaging them up and using inventive words to hide the truth from the consumer.
Of all their cons, the “free range” egg is perhaps the most audacious. You’d need Disney-level imagination to believe the UK can produce more than 10bn eggs each year without inconveniencing any chickens. But by slapping “free range” on the label, and perhaps a nice pastoral scene with a few chickens roaming free, most consumers never realise how the eggs came to be in the box.
The question of the ethical egg is back on the agenda after the government ordered that, in the face of bird flu, poultry must be kept indoors until at least the end of February. This means “free range” eggs may have to be renamed “barn eggs”. Yet whatever they’re called, few shoppers realise what “free range” means and what routine horrors are allowed under its reassuring banner.
Beak trimming is commonplace in the UK. Almost all young hens have part of their beaks burned off without anaesthetic to stop them pecking at the other hens in their cramped, traumatised flocks. Free range sheds can contain up to nine birds per square metre – that’s like 14 adults living in a one-room flat. Some multi-tier sheds (still “free range”) contain 16,000 hens. So while these poor birds can theoretically go outdoors, they can also be too crammed in and too traumatised to find the few exit holes.
What hell we put them through: hens in the wild lay just 20 eggs per year but modern farms with high protein feed and near-constant lighting push them to lay closer to 500 eggs annually. Their exhausted bodies are then discarded within months – routinely sent to slaughter having lived less than one-tenth of their natural lifespan.
And that’s a long life compared to the male chicks. They are financially worthless to egg farmers and therefore killed within hours of their birth. On a daily basis unimaginable numbers get unceremoniously tossed into a machine and ground up alive, or gassed by carbon dioxide, or simply dumped in a bin bag and left to suffocate. So yes, let’s talk about the ethics among all this cruelty.
One way to avoid eggs laid by beak-trimmed hens is to buy them from organic farms certified by the Soil Association, which bans the practice. Yet that does not address other welfare concerns, not least the fate of male chicks.
Researchers within the industry are proposing a genetically modified approachunder which female embryos are identified prior to hatching by making them fluoresce under UV light. This means the male chicks could be identified and crushed in their shells prior to hatching. For some people this is a step forward, but for many the proposal merely produces a new moral dilemma.
Meanwhile, the question of ethical eggs remains a popular touchstone of the defensive meat eater. Such carnivores will ask a vegan: “Tell me this, if I kept chickens, which were allowed to roam free and live their full lives, would you eat their eggs?”
Oh, how the flesh guzzler loves a side order of hypothetical scenario: if a pig lived a happy life, lovingly tended to 24 hours a day in perfect, blissful conditions, and then gently stroked as it was put to sleep, would you eat its meat? If you were trapped on a desert island and could only survive by eating animals, would you eat them?
It’s just self-indulgent displacement, performed by people who want to turn their faces away from the horrors of factory farms and animal slaughter but fund it anyway. The people who describe this theoretical egg production don’t actually run such operations, nor even buy their eggs from such farms. Indeed, very few people even buy organic: of the 12.2bn eggs sold in the UK in 2015, just 2% were organic.
From a vegan perspective, the answer is more holistic and philosophical: we should stop regarding animals as commodities. We should cease our global war on animals and learn to live in harmony. So for vegans the very concept of the ethical egg is essentially oxymoronic.
Or maybe not entirely. One of my vegan friends makes alternative “eggs” using balls of flax seeds and mashed banana. If that sounds a bit bizarre (and I confess it does to me) remember what “real” eggs represent – millions of animals enduring painful, miserable lives so humans can consume the product of chicken periods as a source of protein, or to make nice cakes. Cruelty has been normalised. That’s why they hide the truth.