I Need...Eggs

>> Friday, December 12, 2008

Closely related to my post about dairy products last week is the subject of eggs.

I have found that people are more likely to feel bad about the treatment of cows than chickens in factory farms - maybe because cows are big mammals with huge, sad-looking eyes and chickens are small birds with sharp beaks. Or maybe it's just that people consume so much chicken (50 pounds a year) that they don't want to think about it. All I know is that when I tell people about the terrible treatment of chickens, the answer I most commonly get is, "Well, it's just a chicken."

I think that's sad, but since I've been trying to justify my own egg eating for years now, I don't have much room to talk. In some ways, egg-laying hens have it worse than chickens raised for their meat:

  • Factory Farm egg-laying hens are packed into tiny cages that are about 18 by 20 inches with five to ten chickens per cage. Picture that! Even with only five hens in a cage that size, they would have no room to move, no room to stretch their wings, and they spend their entire lives in a cage that small. It's not like they're being let out a few hours a day to get exercise.
  • The cages are stacked on top of each other, which means that the poop from one cage can fall into the cage below it. Besides being gross (the birds spend a lot of time standing in their own feces), this lack of cleanliness leads to disease in both chickens and humans.
  • At the end of the lives of egg-laying hens, they are sent to a slaughterhouse. Because they are not raised for meat and spend their lives in cramped conditions, many hens have emaciated bodies and suffer from broken bones by the time they are killed.
  • Salmonella poisoning is most commonly associated with eggs and poultry. Safe handling and thorough cooking can reduce the risk of food poisoning, but it's worth noting that salmonella is more common with factory farm raised chickens than traditionally raised chickens.
  • Like cows, chickens are given antibiotics to increase their growth and prevent illness (remember that they're raised under germ-friendly conditions). The average chicken is given four doses of antibiotics a day. Overuse of these antibiotics are making bacteria more and more resistant, and both the antibiotics and the resistant bacteria enter our water supplies.
  • Most poultry farms in the United States are owned by just a couple of companies, the biggest being Tyson Foods. Workers at these farms suffer one of the highest rates of injury in the U.S. and are paid extremely low wages.
For more information, check out Go Veg: Chickens and The Green Guide: Poultry and Eggs.

  • Eat fewer eggs. Eggs make a great binding agent in cooking, making them hard to give up completely. But if you're in the habit of eating a lot of eggs every week, could you reduce that amount even a little?
  • Check your label. If you've ever gone shopping for organic eggs, you know that there are so many choices, it can be confusing. Should you buy certified organic, cage-free, free range, certified humane, pasture-fed? Well, it depends...Rather than repeating information already out there, I suggest you read this guide from The Humane Society or check out The Green Guide's guide to poultry and eggs.
  • Know your producer. The only way to verify for sure how your eggs are being produced is to know the person who's raising them. Talk to the farmer at your farmer's market about how they treat their chickens, mentioning free-range, antibiotics, pesticides, and food.
  • Raise your own chickens. If you have a backyard, you can raise chickens. Be sure to check the laws in your area, though (including the rules in your homeowner's association). If you're interested, look to Urban Chickens for all your backyard chicken-raising needs, including basic information on chicken care and the type of coop to choose.
  • Go Vegan. When I was a vegan, I found eggs a lot easier to give up than dairy products. The important thing to remember is to tailor your egg replacer to whatever you're making. For example, pureed tofu makes a good egg replacement in soft foods like breakfast burritos and egg salads while bananas or applesauce can replace the eggs in baked goods. Check out this guide for more information.

Tips for the Budget Conscious
Many mainstream grocery stores now carry their own store brand of organic or free-range eggs. However, no aspect of the commercial egg industry, including organic eggs, is perfect. For example, organic egg-laying hens are required to have access to the outdoors, but that doesn't mean they actually go outside. Also, male chicks are useless to a commercial egg farmer, so they are killed soon after birth with methods ranging from suffocation to grinding. If you're really concerned about humanely raised chickens and eggs on a budget, your best bet would be to raise your own.

Where I'm At
I buy my eggs at the farmer's market rather than the grocery store even though they're a little more expensive because I feel more confident that the chickens are treated humanely. Plus, I get the bonus of supporting a small family farm. Someday, when we are no longer in an apartment, I plan to raise my own chickens.

Photo by angela7dreams


Green Bean December 16, 2008 at 12:25 PM  

Nice post. We get our eggs from the farmers market or a local egg farm that sells at Whole Foods. Chickens from both places are truly pastured - that's the key word which means they not only have access to the outdoors but spend most of their time pecking there.

Next stop, getting our own hens this spring.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper December 16, 2008 at 7:16 PM  

Green Bean, I'm looking forward to hearing about your experiences with raising your own hens. Be sure to tell us all about it on your blog!

Steph @ Greening Families December 23, 2008 at 1:13 AM  

This article from Mother Earth News may help change more minds - http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx.

I assumed that healthier chickens would produce healthier eggs but was pleasantly surprised to see how much healthier eggs from free-range chickens were. Twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and one-third less cholesterol!

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