Before I went vegan, I ate my fair share of eggs. In fact, poached egg and avocado on toast was one of my favourite, go-to breakfasts. However, all that changed when I watched a documentary film called Earthlings and discovered the truth behind the egg industry.
It’s safe to say that after this experience, I quickly lost my appetite.
So if you’ve been wondering why vegans don’t eat eggs – ‘They’re a by-product, anyway,’ I hear you protest, ‘Wouldn’t they just go to waste if we didn’t eat them?’ – then this is your complete guide to the ethical, environmental and health concerns surrounding eating eggs.
1. Ethical Issues With Modern Factory Farming
Most chickens in the UK live on huge factory farms and are either raised for meat (known in the industry as broilers) or eggs (layers). Either way, they both face a drastically shortened lifespan and a great deal of suffering due to unrelenting human demand for these products.
You only have to look at today’s intensive egg farming methods to realise that we have ceased to view chickens as sentient beings with their own rights to a free and natural life. They are simply a means to an end for human consumption.
In his book Animal Liberation – widely hailed as the seminal text of the Animal Rights movement – Peter Singer describes this as a ‘speciesist view’. Like racism or sexism, when a species prioritises its own needs over that of another, it can’t help but lead to exploitation and abuse.
It may be easier to place a higher moral value on a cow or pig, but chickens are still more like us than we care to admit. They are certainly capable of suffering, as can be seen in the following tragic clip from the UK documentary film Land of Hope & Glory (warning: graphic images).
The Short, Sad Life of a Laying Hen
A natural lifespan for a chicken can be anywhere between 10-20 years of age. For commercial laying hens, however, they are generally kept alive for just 12-24 months before being sent to slaughter. This is because, after this time, their egg production declines and they are no longer profitable.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a hen is raised in a cage, a barn, or free-range. Her life will typically follow the same tragic tale:
- Life begins among thousands of other chicks in a sterile hatchery
- Crammed into living quarters no bigger than an A4 piece of paper
- Suffer from stress, broken bones and disease
- Body becomes spent after 12-16 months of intensive egg production
- Experience further injuries during transportation to slaughterhouse
- Dragged through an electric water bath before having throat slit
I know it’s hard to read about, but let’s take a closer look at some of these more problematic aspects of industrial-scale egg production.
Selective breeding & exploitation of the female reproductive system
In the past 50 years, poultry farming has dramatically changed, with hens bred specifically for their egg yield. Today, a typical commercial layer will produce 300+ eggs a year! Compare this to a natural environment, in which a hen would only lay around 12-20 eggs for the purpose of breeding (typically in Spring).
On egg farms, every last detail has been manipulated to increase egg production. This includes artificial lighting to trick hens into laying more eggs, as well as reduced-calorie feed to induce extra egg-laying cycles.
As with dairy cows, a multi-billion dollar industry has been systematically built to exploit the female reproductive system. If nothing else, then you should be able to empathise with this if you’re a woman. Just imagine having your period every single day of the year (no, thank you!).
Battery cages & overcrowding
2012 was a landmark year for hen welfare, as battery cages were finally banned by European legislation. However, when you look into it a little more closely, it wasn’t quite the victory it first appeared to be. This is because the ban didn’t extend to ‘enriched cages’, which only provide 9% more space per hen (for reference, this is the size of a postcard).
As of 2021, 16 million hens in the UK – around half of all commercial layers – were still being raised in cages. While other European countries like Austria and Switzerland have banned cages for good, sadly this is still common practice in the UK and many other countries.
Unable to perform natural behaviours
The RSPCA states that these modified cages do not meet a hen’s physical or behavioural needs, and severely impede many of their natural instincts and activities. For instance, hens are unable to run, fly, flap their wings, or have dust baths. This inability to exercise leads to both mental frustration and physical health problems.
They are also unable to perform important nesting rituals, such as finding a quiet, cosy spot to lay their eggs. On top of this, there is no access to unlimited perching, an instinctive behaviour that helps them guard against predators at night and huddle together for warmth.
Feather pecking & cannibalism
Hens are social animals and communicate with their flock members with various vocalisations and visual displays. While this works well in smaller groups, being kept in such huge numbers means that natural hierarchies can’t properly be established, leading to confusion and stress (yep, this is where the term ‘pecking order’ comes from).
Cramped conditions cause hens to peck at each other’s feathers, which can lead to injury and even cannibalism. This is not a deliberately aggressive behaviour and doesn’t occur in wild flocks, so sadly appears to be a redirected urge to forage.
Instead of providing hens with the space they need to curb this behaviour, the commonplace ‘solution’ is to remove the tip of of a chick’s beak shortly after hatching (without anaesthetic). While beak trimming is banned in many European countries, it is still standard practice in the UK.
Health issues, disease & premature slaughter
With little room to exercise, chicks aren’t able to build up sufficient bone strength for adulthood. Constant egg production further takes its toll on a hen’s calcium-depleted body, and a significant number will suffer from bone fractures, breakages, and osteoporosis.
In severe cases, the demand on their bodies can lead to severe prolapse (an awful condition characterised by drooping organs). However, even for healthy hens, Marek’s Disease – a viral condition that stops hens from walking properly – can be widely observed.
Stressed birds don’t have much of an immune system, meaning that they are unable to fight off illness and disease, which are rife on egg farms. And dead birds are difficult to spot, so are often left to rot alongside their cagemates.
Finally, hens are roughly handled during transport to slaughter, in which many will suffer further injuries before their short life comes to an abrupt end.
The fate of male chicks
For all its horribleness, culling has received surprisingly little public attention.
Trove K. Danovick, Journalist
As with the dairy industry, males are an unwanted by-product in a system based around a female’s reproductive system.
When you support the egg industry, what you probably didn’t know is that you also support the killing of 7 billion male chicks in the global egg industry each year. As soon as they hatch, chicks are sorted for their sex. And, because they have zero value in the egg-laying industry, male chicks are killed within a couple of hours of life.
Most often, they are gassed. Otherwise, they are put onto a conveyor belt and macerated in a grinder. Their remains are then used in products like exotic animal feed or sold to zoos.
2. The Problem With ‘Free-Range’ & Eggs From Backyard Hens
It’s probably no surprise to most that all of this goes on behind closed doors at factory farms. ‘But what about barn-raised and free-range hens?’ I hear you ask, ‘Doesn’t that solve the problem of consuming eggs in a more considered and ethical way?’
‘Barn-raised’ & ‘free range’
While cage-free is undoubtedly a step up in terms of hen welfare, it is a far cry from the idyllic advertisements we’ve all grown accustomed to.
These marketing terms can be deceptive. The reality is that despite ‘technically’ having access to outdoor space, birds still typically face overpopulated and crowded indoor facilities. To put it into perspective, a free-range farmer can legally house 16,000 hens per building.
The RSPCA is calling for cages to be banned and replaced with these systems. And, although it’s undoubtedly the lesser of evils, a system which ultimately treats animals as commodities for human consumption is always going to be vulnerable to shortcuts and abuse.
Besides, no matter whether caged, barn-raised or free-range, hens are still slaughtered prematurely when their egg yield declines. They still suffer from broken bones and skeletal deformities from intensive egg-laying. And, it doesn’t solve the problem of male chicks being culled, which currently occurs in all forms of industrialised egg production.
Okay, so what about the best-case scenario – is it okay to eat eggs from backyard chickens that are kept as pets? This was a question I toyed with myself at the start of my vegan journey. I mean, if a hen is happy and laying eggs anyway, what’s the problem?!
Well, after doing some more digging, it’s not quite so straightforward.
Firstly, backyard hens are often bought from breeders or farmers. In buying eggs from backyard hens, you are therefore still supporting the killing of male chicks in the hatchery industry.
Moreover, removing a hen’s eggs urges her to produce more; a process that takes its toll on her body. In the wild, a hen would only lay 12-20 eggs a year for breeding purposes. When laying eggs has become such a downplayed event in the life of a chicken, it’s easy to forget that it’s not natural for them to produce eggs daily. Even as a small venture, selling eggs can quickly lead to the view that hens are egg-laying machines.
Before we assume that we are entitled to a hen’s eggs, let’s consider their needs before our own tastebuds. It is actually far kinder to feed her own eggs back to her, as this helps to replenish vital calcium she has lost in the egg production process.
3. Public Health & Environmental Reasons for Not Supporting the Egg Industry
Animal welfare concerns are often at the top of a vegan’s priority list, but for environmentally conscious vegans, it’s also worth considering the hazard chicken farms pose to the environment, as well as human health on a widespread scale.
Avian flu, antiobiotic resistance & potential pandemic
Crammed conditions provide a breeding ground for viruses, so it’s unsurprising that avian flu poses a severe threat to egg farms. Birds are pumped full of antibiotics to ward off illness and disease, which works in the short term, but long-term only breeds new deadly strains of flu virus that resist even the most powerful treatments.
The rather more terrifying aspect to these viruses is that they have the potential to mutate and spread amongst other species, including humans. There’s therefore plenty more at stake than simply profits.
We’ve already seen the deadly and undiscriminatory effects of Covid-19. So, if we are to learn anything from this situation, it would be wise to stop intensively farming birds and other animals. It’s just another accident waiting to happen.
Water & soil contamination
Studies have shown that intensive egg farming has a negative impact on water and soil. This is due to the production of chicken feed and waste disposal. It can also cause real problems for local communities, including less-than-pleasant aromas, dust clouds, and hazardous drinking water.
4. Personal Health Considerations & Eggs
Alongside the ethical and wider health concerns, there are plenty of personal health reasons why you might consider eliminating eggs from your diet.
High cholesterol & link to diseases
While eggs contain a good amount of protein, they are also high in saturated fats and cholesterol. And, as the video above from Nutrition Facts shows, this increases your overall risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In fact, a 2021 study linked the intake of eggs not just with higher incidents of cardiovascular disease, but also cancer mortality and even premature death.
The unsanitary conditions on egg farms – including thousands of hens producing huge amounts of excrement – can quickly lead to pest infestation, which increases a flock’s risk of the infection salmonella. Ultimately, their eggs can also end up carrying this infection. If not cooked properly, this can cause potentially deadly food poisoning in humans.
Vegan Egg Alternatives
It can feel even trickier giving up eggs than dairy, simply because dairy alternatives like plant milk are obvious replacements. A poached or fried egg, on the other hand, is more difficult to replicate!
That said, there is a wide variety of egg alternatives, especially if you’re looking for baking substitutes:
- Flax seed – mix with water to use as a binding agent
- Aquafaba – foamy bean water that can recreate the egg whites in baking
- Apple purée or mashed banana
- Dairy-free yoghurt
- Tofu scramble – mash with kala namak salt for a convincing scrambled egg alternative
- Chickpea flour – perfect for ‘omelettes’
- Commercial liquid egg replaces – look for brands such as Oggs or Crackd
So... Can You Be a Vegan & Still Eat Eggs?
It already gets confusing enough trying to explain the difference between vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets. However, on a final note, I should point out that there are some people who class themselves as vegans, but who still eat eggs – and they have coined the term ‘veggan’.
So, can you be a vegan and still eat eggs?
Well, in short, no. People who choose not to eat meat, fish and dairy but still consume eggs are better described as ‘ovo-vegetarians’. This is because, by definition, vegans abstain from all animal-derived products.
Why Don’t Vegans Eat Eggs? An Ethical, Environmental & Health-Conscious Choice
If you’ve ever wondered why vegans don’t eat eggs, then I hope this post has given you some insight into the numerous ethical, environmental and health reasons for avoiding them.
Chickens are intelligent, gentle birds that enjoy foraging in the grass, as well as plenty of dust baths to keep their feathers clean. They possess keen memories, form affectionate bonds with their flock, and even mourn the death of friends and family members.
The egg industry, like all methods of factory farming, should be very problematic for anyone who calls themself an animal lover. And, even when it comes to backyard hens, there are kinder options than blindly assuming we have the right to take the eggs of another species for our own benefit.
The truth is, we can quite easily live without eggs. So, before your next avocado and poached egg on toast, consider the more radical option – how about picking something plant-based off the menu, instead?