veganism and the egg industry

Eggs don’t hurt chickens, so why don’t vegans eat them? The egg industry is not as innocent as it may seem and there is a lot of cruelty in your omelette

The egg industry in the UK is huge. We consume more than 12 billion eggs per year. This works out to about 200 eggs per person. If we factor in vegans and people with egg allergies, the real number is probably much higher.

In May 2020, there was a 30% increase in the demand for commercial eggs. If eggs are so popular, why do vegans avoid them? What about eggs from your backyard, or a friend’s? 

Vegans are highly opposed to the egg industry due to the mass suffering it causes. Be aware that this post contains graphic descriptions of the darker side of the commercial egg industry. 

female chicks and the egg industry

Female chicks born into the egg industry will be raised to be a laying hen. This means that they have a longer life ahead of them than males, but this is not necessarily the better option. 

We are all aware by now that chickens, particularly laying hens, live in close quarters. Even on farms adhering to legal regulations, they still do not have a wealth of space. 

The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 bans all mutilations to laying hens, with the exception of certain procedures, provided they are performed by someone allowed to do so. A mutilation is defined as ​severe damage to somebody’s body, especially when part of it is cut or torn off.

One of the excepted procedures is the trimming of the beak tip through the use of an infrared laser. This is done not for health or medical reasons. Instead, it is to stop the chickens from pecking one another while they are living so close together.

Removing the tip of the beaks makes the hens much less likely to cause one another to sustain injuries. This in turn reduces the risk of disease throughout the hen population. 

(3) For all poultry the procedure must be performed on – (a) both the upper and lower beaks, with not more than one third of each removed, or (b) the upper beak only, with not more than one third removed. (4) (c) may not be performed on birds which are aged 10 days or over

Paragraph 5 (3) to (4) of Schedule 4 to the Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007

This is a highly traumatic procedure for the chicks to go through at such a young age. In my mind, this is an inexplicably cruel procedure. It’s described legally as a mutilation, that says it all. 

Some farmers think of beak trimming as a precautionary measure. In commercially sized chicken flocks there can be thousands of chickens. In the natural world, they would work out a pecking order between themselves, but this does not work in larger groups. In such cases, what starts as feather grooming can lead to cannibalism if unnoticed.

Currently there is no alternative method that works to keep hen welfare up later in their lives. This means that it is seen as the only viable alternative, and overall the less cruel option. There is no way to me that mutilation is the best option, merely it seems to be the most economically viable. 

male chicks and the egg industry

Similarly to male cows in the dairy industry, male chicks do not provide much value to the egg industry. In the past, they were raised for meat but new fast-growing breeds have been designed meaning that the males are now too small. 

Of the 80 million chicks that are born every year in the UK, around 40 million are male. As they cannot be reared for meat, most of them are killed within the first 72 hours of life. 

This is done by one of two methods. The chicks are either gassed with an inert gas, or they are crushed to death. This is done through the use of an instantaneous mechanical destruction (IMD) device, more commonly referred to as the process of maceration.

Male chicks are deposited one by one into this device. There are 2 main designs of IMD devices. One squashes the chicks using rollers and a hard surface. The roller rotates and the baby chicks are crushed to death in the narrow space left. The other popular style has rotating blades inside which essentially mince the live chicks.

This seems cruel and unethical, and I would agree. This information comes directly from the most recent release by the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA), entitled Code of Practice for the Disposal of Chicks in Hatcheries

The HSA is a UK-based charity. How can this mass slaughter possibly be condoned by an organisation with the word humane in the name? 

UK egg industry

In the UK, 11 billion eggs are laid per year, producing around 80 million chicks. The industry is estimated to be worth more than £1 billion and provides the UK population with around 13,000 jobs. 

The UK has a lot of legislation regarding animal welfare, so I did some digging to see what the regulations were on male chick slaughter. Most agricultural legislation falls under the ownership of DEFRA – the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. 

They have a regular release of their codes of practice. In Schedule 1, part 3.12 of the Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Laying Hens and Pullets, it states that animals which are too young to eat solids must be killed immediately. 

Later in the release it is written

(1) No person may kill surplus chicks which are less than 72 hours old in hatchery waste except by one of the following methods— (a) maceration…(b) exposure to a gas mixture…(2) No person may kill surplus chicks which are less than 72 hours old in hatchery waste by exposure to a gas mixture unless the chicks are placed in the gas mixture and remain in the gas mixture until dead. (3) The killing of surplus chicks which are less than 72 hours old in hatchery waste must be as rapid as possible.

Schedule 2, part 5, subsection 44 of The Welfare of Animals at the Time
of Killing (England) Regulations 2015

Most roles in slaughterhouses require a licence to carry out. This is to ensure the processes are conducted correctly and humanely, as they must be trained to follow legislation.

The impression I get from this release is that DEFRA sees the disposal of male chicks as so insignificant that they waive the requirement for a licence. 

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) opposes the idea that male chicks are seen as a waste byproduct of the egg industry.

They say that the crushed corpses are used as a food source for birds of prey and some reptiles. The carcasses are often sold to private companies and zoos to be used as animal feed, meaning they are not a waste product. 

RSPCA stance

The RSPCA is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. With a name like that you would think they’d be opposed to this mass slaughter and campaigning to stop it happening. This is not quite the case.

In 2018 they posted about shopping #animalkind with a picture of a carton of eggs. They got multiple responses calling them out on the hypocrisy of their post. In response to one comment, they tweeted this. 

The RSPCA has a scheme known as RSPCA Assured, formerly Freedom Food. This allows certain approved farmers to place their label on their products. The goal is to improve animal welfare and ensure all farms are following strict standards. 

The RSPCA claim that their standards are more exacting than the general guidance, however looking through them both I see very few differences. 

On the website, the RSPCA has written a statement on the topic of the maceration of male chicks. They know they’re on a losing wicket, and the statement reads as if they know everyone sees through the façade. The opening sentence reads  “It’s understandably very upsetting to think of young chicks being killed.” 

It’s not just upsetting, it’s heartbreaking to think of the millions of lives being extinguished almost immediately every year. This line has all the sincerity of Matt Hancock’s tears over the first vaccination being issued. 

The statement mentions that only certain methods of slaughter are allowed. Funnily enough, these are the same methods permitted by law. I do not see what difference being RSPCA Assured makes to the baby male chicks. 

Humane Slaughter Association

The release mentioned earlier states that in order for a slaughter method to be considered humane, it must cause immediate death. When gas is being used, this can take anywhere up to 3 minutes. 

If there is no way for the chicks to be slaughtered immediately, they must be sorted into trays and left until collected. The regulations state the trays must not be overcrowded, but there is no clarification on what this means.

It is unimaginable to think of what these poor newborns feel, sat together, scared and confused, waiting for their death.  

This release also states that in some cases neck dislocation is an appropriate slaughter method. There is an EU Regulation, number 1099/2009, which states that no person should kill more than 70 animals per day in this manner. 

A daily limit of 70 seems incredibly high. This is obviously horrible for the chicks, but I feel for the factory workers too. You can only imagine the toll working a job like that would take on your mental health.

egg production and life expectancy

Chickens bred for the meat industry are referred to as broilers and laying hens are the main chicken in the egg industry. Broilers have been selectively bred over time to weigh more and have more flesh tissue to be sold as meat. 

Conversely, laying hens are bred to be skinnier with less meat on their bones. According to Viva! this is so they require less space on the perches, and to ensure that all of their energy supply goes towards producing eggs.

Chickens are believed to have descended from an animal known as the red junglefowl. This animal also lays eggs, at a rate of about 12 per year. Commercial laying hens have been selectively bred over the years to lay at a faster rate. It is currently estimated that they lay around 300 eggs, per hen, per year. 

This causes a huge amount of stress and strain on the hen’s bodies. Where naturally they would be laying eggs for up to 7 years, commercial hens slow their laying rate after the first year. At around 72 weeks old, laying hens are usually deemed commercially unviable to keep rearing. 

This is because their egg production has slowed so much that it is more cost-effective to raise new chicks. Some laying hens go on to be raised for meat, whereas others are sent straight to slaughter. In this case, their flesh is used in blended items and pet foods.

Most chickens have a natural life expectancy of around 7 years. If they are cared for well, they can live as long as 12 years. The oldest chicken on record lived to be 16 years old. She was called Matilda. 

Matilda and her owners, Keith and Donna, pose with Jay Leno following their appearance on his show (September 2004)
Matilda and her owners, Keith and Donna, pose with Jay Leno following their appearance on his show (September 2004)

living conditions of laying hens

There are many different ways that living conditions can be for laying hens. These include non-cage systems and enriched cage systems. 

For hens in enriched cages, the regulations state there must be a minimum of 750 cm² of cage area per hen, 600 cm² of which must be usable.

For non-cage systems, Paragraph 8 of Schedule 2 to the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 says the stocking density must not exceed nine hens per m² of usable area. There must be one nest per 7 hens in these conditions. If group nests are used, there must be at least 1m² of nest space for a maximum of 120 hens. 

If the chickens are free-range, the guidelines state that they must, where necessary and possible, be given protection from adverse weather conditions, predators and risks to their health and must, at all times, have access to a well-drained lying area. 

I do not like the fact that this regulation is qualified with the addition of the phrase “where necessary and possible”, as this leaves farms open to interpretation. In my view, there need to be much stricter regulations on the welfare of living animals. There should be a legal guarantee that all animals are allowed outside regularly for their health and wellbeing.

illness and disease

Laying hens are very susceptible to developing osteoporosis. This is a brittle bone disorder and is caused by excessive egg production. Hens excrete 10% of their body’s calcium stores every time they lay an egg.

This is used to form the shell, but rapidly depletes their internal calcium levels. This can then cause hens to suffer from many broken bones which can lead to a lot of pain and distress.

Using data from the Food Standards Agency the Guardian released an article detailing chicken disease in the period from July 2016 to June 2019. 

The figures showed that during this time, 61,008,212 defects in chickens were identified by inspection staff once the animals had arrived for slaughter. This figure includes laying hens that have reached the end of their useful lifespan and are now being sold for meat.   

There is disease rampant on chicken farms, with an on-farm mortality rate of 4% caused by injury and poor health. More than 3 million chickens were rejected at the slaughterhouse due to ascites or heart failure. Ascites is also referred to as water belly and is common in old laying hens. 

This presents as a swollen stomach, struggling to breath, lethargy, and trouble moving. It is caused by hypertension or heart failure which make their liver stop functioning. In laying hens, this is commonly due to a tumour in the reproductive system or as a natural result of aging. There is no cure and this will eventually be fatal. 

veganism and backyard eggs

Most vegans will have been asked at some point if they would eat eggs from their own, or a friend’s, chickens. My personal view on this is no, which I am sure many vegans would agree with. This is because it is still using the animal for personal gain. 

If you leave unfertilised eggs with the hens, many will eat them. They contain a large number of essential nutrients and can be beneficial to your chicken’s health.

This includes the calcium excreted into the shell. If hens are allowed to eat their eggshells their calcium levels remain much more stable and their overall health is better.

Chickens lay more eggs the more you remove from them. This means that you will not end up with an excess of eggs if you begin leaving them with your chickens. Instead, their production rate will decrease. 

Many chickens are also purchased from breeders. This means that by purchasing them, you are funding the continued exploitation of these animals. Of course, rescue chickens are an entirely different issue, as you would be saving those animals from a life of suffering.

vegan egg swaps

It has never to be vegan than in 2021. There are a huge number of egg replacement options available and a phenomenal amount of knowledge on their applications. 

Commercial egg replacers often come in powdered form and need to be mixed well with water before being added to a recipe. They are better used in baked goods, or as a binding agent. Follow the instructions specified on the package to make it and for the exact quantities. 

Aquafaba is hot on the internet right now, with Oggs releasing a standalone aquafaba product. For those who don’t know, aquafaba is the liquid drained from a can of chickpeas. The proteins from the chickpeas have diffused into the water, making aquafaba similar in structure to egg whites, making it perfect for meringues and marshmallows. Use 2 tablespoons of aquafaba in place of 1 egg white, or 3 tablespoons in place of a whole egg. 

Apples sauce is a super easy way to replace eggs in baked items. It is not as commonly available in the UK, but you can stew your own apples and puree them for a homemade version! Per egg, you should substitute ¼ cup apple sauce.

Chia seeds and flaxseeds can both be used to make an egg replacement. To replace 1 egg, combine 1 tablespoon of chia or flax with 3 tablespoons of water and allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes. The consistency will change drastically and this is how you know it’s ready to use. Again, these work better in baked goods.

Tofu is a word dreaded by non-vegans, but all vegans know that it is one of the most versatile foods available. You can use crumbled firm tofu to make a scramble (add some turmeric and kala namak for that eggy vibe), or blended to make quiches. Silken tofu is often used in sweet dishes such as tortes and other desserts. You can use ¼ cup of blended silken tofu to replace 1 egg.

I hope that this article has readjusted the way that you think about eggs. They are not as innocent as they may seem.

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