The incredible, edible egg. It’s been described as one of the most complete, and most versatile, foods ever.
But did you know that if you choose wisely, you can up the versatility quotient of that one, simple food so that it includes lowering your risk of food poisoning, relieving the suffering of intelligent animals, reducing air and water pollution and mitigating climate change?
How? By buying eggs that come from hens raised on pasture, not on factory farms.
When we think of factory farms, it’s meat that first comes to mind. But eggs—between 95 percent – 98 percent of them—come from factory farms, too. And how they’re “produced” is enough to turn your stomach.
Here’s why you should boycott eggs from factory farms, and how to find alternatives.
Huge factory farms create huge food safety problems. That’s the message of a report from the Humane Society of the United States, “Food Safety and Cage Egg Production.” In 1994, 200,000 Americans were sickened in a single incident of salmonella-contaminated liquid eggs. In 2010, a half billion eggs were recalled and traced back to a single source of salmonella-contaminated chicken feed.
Salmonella poisoning costs the country billions and is the leading cause of death from food poisoning. Eggs are the number-one cause of salmonella poisoning in the U.S.
Salmonella thrives in factory farms that produce eggs. According to the HSUS report, every recent scientific study found higher Salmonella rates in cage operations. The most comprehensive study, and the basis for the European Food Safety Authority’s battery cage ban, found that salmonella rates were much lower in cage-free production systems, and almost non-existent in free-range and organic systems.
What is it about factory egg farms that make them so disease-ridden? HSUS cites research attributing the problem to the chicken shit floating through the air (“greater volume of fecal dust”); the fact that flies and rats find piles of chicken shit romantic (“ideal nesting grounds”); that it’s “particularly difficult” to clean factory farms of salmonella, especially when it “can survive for more than two years in dried chicken feces;” and to the poor health of chickens kept in battery cages (their immune systems are stressed and they lack the gut flora they would normally have under natural conditions).
Environment, Climate and Public Health
“Contemptibly petty, insignificant nonsense.” That’s what “chickenshit” has come to mean in American slang. But, the mountains of waste that pile up in factory egg farms have no small effect on environmental quality, animal welfare or human health.
Poultry is second only to cattle in ammonia emissions, which can “penetrate deep into the lungs, where they can contribute to respiratory disease and stress the cardiac and immune systems.” Ammonia pollution from factory egg farms is responsible for thousands of premature deaths and billions in healthcare costs.
And, that’s assuming proper handling of waste. Unfortunately, egg producers don’t always follow the rules. In 2011, a Texas egg producer, Mahard Egg Farm, Inc., was ordered to pay a $1.9 million penalty for violations of the Clean Water Act, and another $3.5 million on remedial measures to protect the environment and people's health. This was the largest amount ever paid in a federal enforcement action involving a concentrated animal feeding operation.
Mahard was accused of abandoning inactive and improperly designed storage lagoons full of manure from chicken houses, wastewater from the egg-washing process, and compost from chicken carcasses, as well as over-applying this waste to its fields. The soils at its facilities were saturated with the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. When it rains, these nutrients run off the fields, polluting streams and waterways.
Eggs also have a significant carbon footprint. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eaters’ Guide, eating 4 oz. of eggs is equivalent to driving a car more than a mile.
Eggs from factory farms are nutritionally inferior to eggs from hens raised on pasture. According to Mother Earth News, real free-range eggs contain:
• 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene
• 50 percent more folic acid
• 70 percent more vitamin B12
There’s a reason why an overly protective type who worries over others is called a “mother hen.” Scientists have confirmed that “adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of ‘empathy’: the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”
Hens’ emotional and cognitive intelligence is impressive. They can delay gratification, something previously attributed only to humans and other primates. Their math skills are as strong as a 4-year-old’s. Every chicken knows his or her place in the “pecking order” and remembers the faces and ranks of more than 100 other birds in their complex social network.
These smart, sensitive creatures endure “the cruelest of all” factory farm practices--confinement to battery cages, where 250 million egg-laying hens are kept in U.S. factory farms.
“To get a sense of a hen's life in a battery cage,” Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary says, “imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people.”
Animal rights attorney Doris Lin adds, “Birds fall out of cages, get stuck between cages, or get their heads or limbs stuck between the bars of their cages, and die because they cannot access food and water.”
The floor space for a caged hen is smaller than a sheet of printer paper. Unable to spread her wings or move around, the caged hen’s body atrophies, her bones become brittle and break, and she’ll eventually succumb to a common form of paralysis known in the industry as “cage layer fatigue.”
More than 90 percent of egg-laying hens are suffering in battery cages. Only 2% of hens are in organic systems, and, of those, 80 percent are in industrial-scale organic operations where they are held in massive henhouses with as many as 85,000 hens. This means only about 0.4 percent of egg-laying hens in this country are on pasture-based farms. The best way to shift those percentages is for consumers to boycott the factory-farmed eggs, and force the market to produce more and better alternatives.
How to get started
• Buy USDA certified organic eggs, but read the label.
• “Free Range” is better than “Cage Free,” but “Pasture Raised” is best. These claims on Certified Humane® products are certified by Humane Farm Animal Care.
• The best organic eggs available nationwide in stores are from hens raised on pasture. OCA recommends eggs from Vital Farms/Pasture Verde and the brands that received “5 eggs” in the Cornucopia Institute’s Scrambled Eggs scorecard.
• You can buy organic, pasture-raised eggs directly from farmers at EatWild.com and LocalHarvest.org.
• The highest-welfare eggs come from Animal Welfare Approved. Unfortunately, few farms are certified to this standard. Animal Welfare Approved offers an app to help locate sources for eggs that have earned the organization’s approval.
• Enforcement of the organic rules for eggs needs improvement, especially the outdoor access requirement. Because of recent changes at the National Organic Standards Board, those improvements aren’t likely to happen at the USDA. Consumers need to pressure producers to go beyond organic.
• Going vegan is the surest way to boycott factory farms. Organic Authority has a good list of natural substitutes for eggs in baking. Organic vegan baking mixes are available from Wholesome Chow.
Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association.