Eggs are, of course, part of the birds' reproductive cycle. Just like humans, hens release eggs periodically -- see where the word 'period' comes from? I just realized it as I typed that! -- and if they are not fertilized by a male, the egg leaves the body and no offspring are created. The eggs we eat are eggs that have not been fertilized. In other words, we're eating "chicken's periods." Yum. (I remember being little and being very worried I was eating undeveloped baby chickens. Whenever I'd help my mother bake, I'd crack the eggs open fearfully, wondering if a dead baby chick would emerge.) I don't outline all that because I think you're a moron. :) Rather, most of us simply don't give it much thought.
Sidestepping here for a moment, I was intrigued in the past couple years by the idea of raising our own chickens for eggs. My father and mother had done this when I was a baby (which I obviously don't remember) and later my father and stepmother did this in my early teens. I loved those chickens and their wonderful "chicken-alities." My Dad, who loved his red-headed mother-in-law but who had a constant teasing relationship with her, named all the five red chickens "Helen" after her and the one black chicken "Annie." (No idea why he chose Annie, but she really did look like an Annie.) Annie was his favorite and he'd dote on her. She'd clumsily fly up on his lap and eat food from his mouth that he'd hold out to her between his teeth. When newcomers would come to our house, he'd introduce them to the chickens, saying, "This is Annie, and that's Helen, Helen, Helen, Helen, and Helen." We collected and ate their eggs, which were, as you may have guessed, superior in taste to the supermarket brands. However, despite the fencing my Dad put around the chicken pen, raccoons and the newly repopulated coyotes killed the chickens one by one before their egg production waned.
I was very interested in replicating this experience for Ryan and me -- minus the predators -- but ran into some problems. First off, it is initially a little costly building a safe enclosure for them to protect them not only from predators but from cold New England winters. Second, I learned that the egg production does wane after a couple of years and found that most people at that point kill those chickens for meat, which Ryan and I both agreed we could never do. Third, in most cases, you order your female chickens from a mail-order company and there are usually a few that don't survive the trip, which is kind of an expected thing, much like the whole "the-potato-chips-may-settle-in-the-bag" disclosure. Finally, I wondered "What happens to the males? Do people order males?" We decided to forego the idea of raising our own chickens, as we realized that the responsibilities were too overwhelming for where our lives were at the moment.
So going back to the egg industry. Many of my wonderings about raising chickens were answered when I researched the egg industry.
Eggs are hatched and workers immediately sort through the baby chicks. The females are put on one conveyor belt, and the males have one of two fates. Either they are thrown into enormous plastic bags with thousands of other males chicks to be crushed or suffocated to death, or they are simply and slowly ground up alive. I'll repeat that. They're ground up alive. It's also called maceration. (Many make it through this grinding process still alive and die a slow death.) This, more than anything, shocked me. And then I was shocked at myself for even being shocked. What else, I reasoned, would they do with them if they were of no financial use? We just don't think about it, do we, which is just peachy for the egg industry. We don't "not think about it" because we're cruel or thoughtless, but (in my opinion) because our lives are so busy, that our main thinking goes into other, more pressing areas of our lives.
The female chicks next have their beaks seared off with a hot blade, which is called "beak trimming." This is not like cutting off the dead part of our fingernails or cutting our hair. Their beaks are filled with nerve endings, so the process is extremely painful. (Anesthesia is obviously never used.) Many die after this procedure because the pain is so bad, they simply can't bear to eat and they starve to death. Occasionally beaks regenerate slightly and those unlucky chicks/chickens have to have the process repeated. Why is this debeaking even done? Read on ...
Chickens are placed in tiny cages called "battery cages." There are sometimes up to ten chickens in one small cage, in a room filled with cages upon cages. (It's very creepy to behold.) They are so cramped they cannot even turn their bodies around, much less spread their wings. All normal chicken behavior cannot occur. They pee and defecate all over each other (the birds on the bottom cages have the worst deal) and the ammonia from these secretions burns their skin and feathers. Understandably, they go a little mad, and if they still had their beaks they would peck each other to death. (More dead chickens, less money!) Thus, their beaks are seared off their bodies when they are chicks.
At the end of their first laying cycle, there is what is termed as a "forced molt." Molting makes them to lay another cycle sooner. So to force this molt, they are starved for 14 days with no water and the room is kept dark. This shocks their bodies and they lay their eggs. Can you imagine? About ten percent of the chickens die at this point, and their bodies remain in the cages with the live chickens that remain.
After their second cycle, at the age of one of two, the chickens -- which normally can live up to 10 years old -- are considered "spent" and are sent to a slaughterhouse. Again, as with the cows, there is no happy chicken retirement farm where they get to live out their remaining days in beautiful pastures. The carcasses from these chickens, however, are so damaged, bruised, cut, and burned from the conditions in the battery cages, that they cannot be sold as the meat we see in the cellophaned packages in the supermarket. Instead, it is used for soups, broth, pet food, and school lunch programs. Yes, you read that right.
So that's all pretty awful. But then a lot of people argue (myself included!) "But I buy organic and/or free-range eggs! So my dollars don't support those practices." Many of the same practices however, are used on these birds. Debeaking, killing male chicks, and unhealthy living conditions still occur. Often (not always but often) the area where they can "range" is a tiny dirt patch.
Short, intense video of typical egg production
So you are probably seeing the fine line approach, right? What about raising your own chickens or buying chickens from a local farm stand? That is obviously your call. I've seen many a small farm where the chickens roam about and look healthy and happy in an Old MacDonald kind of way. But for me, I can't purchase or consume their eggs, because I know now that if they ordered the female chicks, the males are still being killed and my dollars are still supporting that. If their own hens hatched their chicks, what happened to the males? Also, what happens to the chickens once their egg production declines or stops? For me, there are simply too many unknowns so I don't risk supporting the practices I outlined earlier.
Do I miss my daily morning omelets? (I did eat them every morning for a spell this winter.) Surprisingly, no.
What about baking? Truthfully, this is an area where I still need to educate myself, as I've never been a huge baker and as I'm still in the relative beginning stages of eating a plant-based diet. However, there are many great (and much healthier) substitutes out there that taste just as good as eggs, if not better. I will outline them as I experiment with them. (Though if you are itching to try some now, check out Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's award-winning The Joy of Vegan Baking: The Compassionate Cooks' Traditional Treats and Sinful Sweets, as she has many options that reviewers are raving about.)
I will say, however, that the vegan baked fare that you'll find for sale really varies from crap to sublime. I went to Whole Foods one day (whose baked goods I've enjoyed in the past) and got a vegan blueberry muffin and was hugely disappointed when it tasted truly nasty -- very "flat"-tasting and oily. It tasted like what omnivores think vegan food tastes like. Bleck. I'm guessing they used canola oil, and it wasn't good. But then some folks use much tastier substitutes! Flour Bakery, a Boston baked-goods hub that is unspeakably good, was my favorite pre-vegan place to get pastries (and this coming from a person who normally doesn't enjoy pastries.) One day recently, my newly vegan self stopped by with a small spark of hope that they might have something on the menu without eggs or dairy. Lo and behold, there were several items! Yipee! But still hurting from the Whole Foods blueberry incident, I tried to hold my optimism in check. I bought the chocolate vegan cupcake and -- gasp - I've never tasted anything that good in my life. Ever. It was unreal. It didn't even need frosting, the taste was so decadent, with little bits of goo-ey chocolate throughout the cupcake. Heaven.
So life without eggs can be a delicious one, and I'll experiment more with this later and will share the results with you! I should add too that once I figure out the fine-tuning with these great substitutes, I'll be contacting Whole Foods with suggestions on improving their baked vegan fare.
I hope that helped you better understand why many people are forgoing eggs in their diet. Please feel free to post places that serve amazing vegan baked goods! And maybe we can all educate the establishments that are serving gross vegan stuff.
Onward and upward!