Americans are still talking about the historically expensive price of eggs, complaining about how precious they have become or posting memes about chickens. But there is limited conversation around what went into producing an egg that came to our tables priced ridiculously cheap at less than 15 cents. Here’s the truth; the standard farming methods that produce the cheap eggs we take for granted endanger human health and are extremely cruel to hens.
First, the impact on public health. The avian flu that killed 50 million hens last year alone and is the prime driver of the current egg shortage, spreads fast in commercial poultry farms where thousands of hens are confined in barns for economies of scale. The irony is that the very conditions that normally make eggs so cheap are what facilitate disease outbreaks. Avian flu transmission to humans has already occurred and there could be another pandemic. While the risk is considered low at the moment, if it happens, the avian flu is far more deadly than COVID.
There are also other known health risks with egg farms – higher risk of salmonella contamination with caged hens, antibiotic resistance in humans from antibiotic use in farm animals and particulate air pollution from animal agriculture.
Second, the impact on hens. I sometimes visit a local farm where hens walk around, eat grass, and dust bathe. Some are shy and skirt around me, some are bold and walk right past me. The farmer tells me the hens sleep in the same spot near the same hen friend every night. These birds are living breathing creatures each with a personality, forming relationships with each other.
In large factory farms, hens are mere units of production. They spend their lives in battery cages that are cages stacked on top of and next to each other. The minimum required space set by United Egg Producers (UEP), an association of egg farmers, is 67 square inches, the size of an iPad. Hens have no room to spread their wings or roam to find nests to lay eggs. They suffer physical damage to bones and feathers as well as psychological harm leading to abnormal behaviors. To stop the hens from pecking each other in this artificial and highly confined environment, their beaks are cut off in a process called debeaking early on. Commercial hens are forced to lay 300-400 eggs a year by forced molting, which is essentially inducing a state of starvation to stimulate egg laying. Normally, hens only lay 15-20 eggs a year.
Third, our indirect costs for eggs. Our taxes subsidize the animal industry (fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds receive only a tiny fraction of the government subsidies). Most people don’t know that tax dollars are going towards culling entire hen populations during disease outbreaks. The ‘depopulation’ is by a brutal process called ‘ventilation shutdown,’ which is essentially death by heat suffocation.
If we paid more for eggs, we would eat fewer of them. Considering the average American consumes almost 300 eggs a year, almost one a day, this can feel difficult. But from a nutritional standpoint, there are many food sources such as beans, legumes and nuts that provide abundant protein. For those used to the taste of eggs, there are plant-based substitutes that approximate the egg taste. For baking, Martha Stewart suggests many alternatives. People with egg allergies certainly have found ways to substitute for eggs.
As informed consumers, let’s support leaders like Senator Cory Booker who are working on reforming the farm industry. Let us have a voice in how our eggs are produced. At the very least, lobby to completely eliminate battery cages that are already banned in a handful of states and many countries.
‘Cage-free’ hens are housed in an enclosed area with access to food and water with each hen getting about 1 square foot of space. They don’t see the outdoors in their lifetime, but they can at least spread their wings and move. It’s hardly anything but still an improvement.
‘Free range’ hens have access to the outdoors during the laying cycle but could still undergo debeaking and forced molting. Most other labels like ‘farm fresh’ and ‘happy hens’ are unregulated. ‘Organic’ and ‘antibiotic free’ only refer to the feed given to the hens, not their housing conditions.
Cheap eggs are not worth it because cheap goods are rooted in exploitation – slave labor, child labor, underpaid workers – in this case, animal suffering.
The current ‘eggflation’ is the perfect time to rethink ways to make nutritious food accessible to all without sacrificing animal welfare and endangering public health. Eliminating cruelty to hens means happier hens and healthier humans. And eggs would become the luxury they should be if consumers paid for the true cost of production.