What's Wrong with Eggs?

Eggs, Animal Protection, The Environment and Health

Hens in Battery Cages
Hens in Battery Cages. Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Updated and Edited on May 20, 2016 by Michelle A. Rivera, About.Com Animal Rights Expert

Just when you think vegans are no longer viewed as Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating hippies, someone who has just learned you're a vegan asks you why you don't eat eggs. After all, the chickens aren't killed for the eggs, right? So what's the harm?

You take a deep breath and count to ten before recounting The Truth.

"Chickens are kept in battery cages. Egg production is about the cruelest way to exploit animals there is. It's a bloody, disgusting and murderous industry, and the chickens are not only tortured, but also maimed and pumped full of all kinds of synthetic crap God never intended as part of the make up of a chicken. In fact, as an animal rights activist, I would almost prefer you give up chicken and eggs to red meat since cows at least have a semblance of a life before having their throats slit." Your new friend's face goes from smug certainty to shock as s/he realizes s/he's just lost an argument to a hippie. Before heading away you toss the final nugget over your shoulder; "Eggs are really bad for you too. That stuff will kill you."

Eggs and Animal Rights

From an animal rights perspective, breeding and raising chickens for eggs is exploitative no matter how well they are treated because we are infringing on the chickens' right to be free of human use.

Whenever there is animal exploitation, there is the potential for abuse. 

Eggs and Animal Welfare

While the animal rights view opposes animal agriculture no matter how well the animals are treated, even people who believe the animal welfare view (believing that animal use is not in itself wrong, as long as the animals are treated well while they are alive) would find it difficult, if not impossible, to defend a modern egg factory.

In a modern egg factory, tens of thousands of hens are stacked on top of each other in cages that are so crowded, the hens cannot even stretch their wings. In a battery cage, each hen has less room than an 8.5 x 11" sheet of paper. In some factory farms, the bottoms of the cages are made of wire, so that waste falls through the bottom of the cage onto the birds below. The hens are debeaked without anesthesia so they don't peck each other to death in the unimaginable stress of their confinement.

When they are no longer productive, the "spent" hens are slaughtered. Their flesh is tough and stringy, so the meat of these 100 million hens each year is turned into pet food, compost and school lunches.

At hatcheries supplying young chickens to factory farms, males are killed because they aren't useful for egg production and are the wrong breed of chicken to be profitable for meat. At the Hy-Line Hatchery in Iowa, the world's largest hatchery for egg-laying chickens, the male chicks are ground up while they are still alive.

Except for the extreme confinement, these practices even take place at "cage-free" egg farms, including the debeaking, the slaughter of spent hens and the killing of male chicks.

Eggs and the Environment

Meat is catastrophic for the environment because it's inefficient to feed cows so they are fattened enough for human consumption. The same argument applies to eggs, dairy or any other animal product. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization’s report, "Livestock’s Long Shadow" documents the environmental devastation of animal agriculture worldwide, including, "The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops".

Eggs and Human Health

If you're not going to avoid eggs because of ethical reasons, consider the nutritional reasons to avoid them.

As with many health issues, conflicting reports are filed almost daily by the food police  about benefits we derive from some foods and harmful foods to avoid. Sometimes, the reports even change sides within months of publication. The reports about eggs are no different. Eggs may have protein, but they also have cholesterol. A lot of cholesterol.

In response to the question, "Are chicken eggs good or bad for my cholesterol?" a Mayo Clinic cardiologist responds, "Chicken eggs are high in cholesterol, and a diet high in cholesterol can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels." Jennifer Moll, the Guide to Cholesterol, writes:

While you may feel fine and otherwise have a clean bill of health, having high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. Overall, heart disease is rivaled only by cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States. Also, heart disease doesn't necessarily trumpet its arrival: there may not be any symptoms at all -- until a heart attack.

Then there's the discussion of good cholesterol vs. bad cholesterol and which type eggs deliver. But plant-based foods have no cholesterol, so a degree in food science is unnecessary if you embrace a vegan diet. And, consider this, the human diet does not need outside sources of cholesterol, good or bad, because our liver makes all of the cholesterol we need. But if we eat too much cholesterol, or if we are genetically predisposed to make too much cholesterol, our cholesterol levels can reach dangerously high levels.

While it is possible for a person's cholesterol level to be dangerously low, this is not the result of a vegan diet, but the result of health issues. People with impaired liver function can find that their bodies are not making enough cholesterol. Sometimes these issues are genetic. 

What is the solution?

Some vegans who would normally never eat animal products may eat eggs if they come from their own chickens who they keep as pets in the backyard. These animals are treated like companion animals, and the eggs they lay, if allowed to hatch, may make the brood too large to handle.

So rather than waste the eggs, they may prepare them to eat or use them in baked goods. This is an individual choice that may appeal to those who adopt a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons only. Vegans who avoid animal products for health reasons may not understand this choice; that doesn't make it less of an individual choice. 

But not all of us can keep backyard chickens. So for us, the solution to the cruelty and waste of animal agriculture is total veganism, including eggs. While some activists might campaign to ban battery cages, in favor of cage-free eggs and eggs labeled "free range," many agree that in a large, commercial agricultural operation, the raising of chickens for eggs is not humane.

Side note: Vegans are not into Birkenstock since Birkenstock makes some of their shoes from leather. Vegans don't wear leather, so they are probably not wearing Birkenstocks. Most of us do eat granola and consider the label "hippie" a badge of honor, however.