The [Commercial & Ethical] Impossibility of “Humane” Eggs
By Kelly Atlas
(This post is intended to illustrate the commercial problems that make mass-producing eggs at lauded "humane" standards impracticable, and to further identify how a genuinely "humane" standard is never met and argue that the very idea of "humane" exploitation is impossible -- in terms of both intents and impacts -- while providing contextual information about what is involved in the exploiting of chickens for their eggs, as well as explaining the important ethical and tactical reasons to recognize all eggs as a product of human chauvinism and violence.)
Currently, outside of my involvement with DxE, I work at an adoption center (Animal Place’s Rescue Ranch) for nonhuman refugees who were exploited for “food” purposes. We recently rescued two thousand “spent” chickens from battery cages, before they were gassed. So let me tell you what it would take to sell eggs from chickens who get a sanctuary standard of living.
Let’s say we have 1,500 hens, in absolutely minimal sanctuary conditions (a reasonable minimum standard for what is arguably “humane” I hope we can agree), who are each laying at the 300-eggs/year upper end of the maximum amount of “egg production” that hens are forced (through their breeding) to perform in their first year after they start laying.
Every day, that’s *very conservatively* $150 for food and water, $15 straw and nesting materials for barns that they need to be in at night to protect them from nonhuman predators, and at least 15 hours of human labour per day just for cleaning (which is $109 at USA Federal Minimum Wage).
Just to split even with those costs, the eggs would have to be sold wholesale at a cost of 22-cents each, or $2.67/dozen wholesale. (The “large” white eggs of leghorns exploited in battery cages are currently $1.67/dozen wholesale in California where costs are highest in the US.)
At *minimum* sanctuary standards, this is already 160% the current cost of mass-produced eggs, and that’s not including what the grocery store adds on, and that’s not including extra cleaning hours needed, or above-minimum-wage earnings, or the costs of more food or higher-quality food (or calcium supplementation, which is definitely needed as the birds age past a year or two) if needed, and it certainly does not include profits and CEO-stuffer, or even utilities costs, or medical costs, or building and fencing and maintenance costs, or maintenance labour hours, or cleaning supplies costs, or transportation and shipping costs, or packaging costs, or admin costs, or advertising costs, or the costs of running a similar-standards farm for the parent birds and the layer chicks before they start laying or otherwise the cost of buying the hens to support the forested/pastured-breeding farms where the hens (let’s just call them slaves, since that is what it is to purchase someone else as property) were purchased, or the costs of raising the males (who can’t lay eggs!) if we don’t throw them in a trash bag (who am I kidding, the grinder is more popular) as infants, or the costs of whatever happens to the bodies of the birds who have passed on… and even those are just the ‘other’ costs that I can think of straight off the top of my head right now.
Then you’re definitely past the $3.00/dozen at which humanewashing exploiter Joel Salatin’s “pastured” (PS, wild junglefowl don’t live in open pastures — not ethically relevant, but let’s understand who we’re exploiting a little better here) eggs sell.
This is NOT FEASIBLE for businesses that market to anyone but the wealthiest couple percent of the population (though a few backyard businesses that already have the land can do nearly-this at $5/dozen exploiting 50 hens/year, though they support hatcheries, profit from the hens’ constant suffering, do not give their inmates the medical care that sanctuaries commit to, kill said slaves, and promote speciesism and violence). It is absolutely impossible for the scale and pricing of the vast majority of eggs we consume currently from hens exploited in cramped battery cages and confined “free range" sheds.
This is all with all the chicken-enslavement (and corn-production) subsidies staying the same (which means staying what, tens of times higher than subsidies for fruit). Without the nonhuman exploiters buying off our corrupt government, eggs would cost even more — much more!
We’re not done yet, though. Now, let's go past what the very best of the "pasture" camps do, and, like a sanctuary, say we don’t murder anyone, but let them live out whatever lives their breeding allows them to. This means an average of far fewer eggs, as the rate at which they are able to form them continues to decline until their bred-broken bodies fail them (just over half as many by the time they’re three, and most will die around or before four due to reproductive problems so humanely bestowed on them through their breeding). Now you’re looking at around double the price of what you got after all of those extra items that came after the originally calculated 60% less-than-the-bare-minimum-costs markup.
If we make all of that other sanctuary-esque stuff happen, and it’s cheaper to kill them, why should we refuse to, if the lives they've lived have been net-positive? [Insert facepalm.] For the same ethical reasons that we should not bring human children into the world to be killed for their flesh after living to puberty in a net-positive life. (Reasons that apply whether you care more about the intention of your actions or their effects.)
It’s pretty straightforward: Their future life is worth more to them than their exploited bodies are to humans (who only seek to eat them because of habits — and moreover, hateful ideologies — that they’ve been taught). That's the case even if we kill someone in a 100% painless murder (which is, again, not commercially possible -- if possible at all, which I highly doubt, or rather, which I doubt with complete certainty given the lack of possibility to guarantee it is carried out perfectly, in which case the risk of any physical and emotional pain upon being murdered outweighs the negligible, entirely replaceable "pleasure" a human derives from eating their eggs).
Oh, and let’s not forget about the very significant speciesism- and violence-perpetuating social costs of saying it’s totally okay (and worse, morally superior and wonderful) to kill someone when their usefulness to us has run out, so long as they are so unfortunate as to not be a human.
To hammer it in past all the humanewashing propaganda we see every day: Where “humane” means anything like “compassion” it is utterly impossible to “humanely” use someone, for our own selfish purposes, at a cost to them (and others like them) that outweighs the perceived, easily substituted (by new social norms and palate pleasures — and with no transition cost at all for humans who never eat an egg) 'gain' to ourselves.
I REITERATE: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “HUMANE” REDUCTION OF A PERSON TO AN OBJECT OF PROPERTY.
Don’t let me neglect to emphasize the ethical consideration of the serious physical (and thereby, in addition, emotional) burden that these people carry on account of being bred to lay so many (and such massive) eggs. They get prolapses and they struggle to lay and they have to eat and rest a lot, and, importantly, the vast majority of them will die young because of the shackles written into their genes. Frankly, I consider that not only painful and exhausting exploitation, but, importantly, murder.
For those who, after all of that, have resolved to endorse the selling of eggs from rescued chickens kept in backyards, forget it, because the social costs of degrading those animals to egg-making machines for us to use puts other chickens at risk of what you do not consider “humane."
There is no non-speciesist way to “farm” people who aren't human. “Humane” exploitation is ALWAYS a lie.
Until every animal is free,
Kelly, who aims to speak on behalf of Dualla & Snow, the two liberated hens in her family.