Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An "Egg-Cellent" Option

For centuries, eggs have been touted as the “perfect little food package.” They are said to be an important source of protein, essential vitamins and minerals, and can make a significant contribution to a healthy diet. Although there are many excellent food alternatives that supply the same nutritional value, eggs continue to be a popular food source.

When most people think of “farm-fresh” eggs, the picture that comes to mind is one of hens roaming freely, scratching, pecking, and contentedly laying eggs.

However, in today’s society where egg production is in full force, this peaceful image is a far cry from reality. According to Factoryfarming.comThere are more than 325 million egg laying hens in the U.S. confined in battery cages — small wire cages stacked in tiers and lined up in rows inside huge warehouses without access to natural sunlight.” The egg-laying hens contained within these cages have space approximately the size of an 8” X 11” piece of paper, where they are jam packed against each other. This leads them to rub up against the sides of the cages causing cuts, abrasions and feather loss. The birds are also unable to scratch and peck at the ground without their feet getting caught in the wires because they are living in such an unnatural environment.

Under a natural, free-range farm setting, hens can establish a "pecking order" and none of the hens are in jeopardy so long as they can easily move to a different area. Under a high-stress, high-density environment, a natural pecking order cannot be established and the sharp beaks of hens can result in injury (and death) to large numbers of birds. These conditions cause them to peck excessively at each other due to frustration and monotony.

Consequently, to keep the hens “safe” from each other, they go through the process of “debeaking” when they are young chicks. This is an awfully painful process where the beaks are seared off with a hot torch or chopped off with a machine leaving only the short stub of a beak. The hens are then forced to live the rest of their lives without a complete beak intact and many are also subjected to painful toe removal, as reported by the FDA.

Another common practice used by major egg producers is “forced molting” which is basically a condition when hens are “starved for profit.” According to United Poultry Concerns Website In nature, birds replace all their feathers in the course of a year to maintain good plumage at all times. A natural molt often happens at the onset of winter, when nature discourages the hatching of chicks. The hen stops laying eggs and concentrates her energies on staying warm and growing new feathers.”
Sadly, the egg industry exploits this natural process by forcing an entire group to molt simultaneously. This is done to obtain several hundred additional eggs from the overly exhausted hens, because it is thought to be cheaper to "reuse them to death” rather than have the hens lay eggs in connection with their natural cycles.

To trigger the physiological shock of the forced molt, food is withheld for no less than five days and as long as fourteen days. Many hens die during the starvation process, but survivors may be force-molted two or three times, based on economics. “At any given time, over 6 million hens in the U.S. are being systematically starved in their cages,” reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These inhumane practices are all in the name of mass egg production and greed, and the heavily strained hens are unable to produce eggs in this manner for very long and are soon put to death.

According to Factoryfarming.com, “After one year in egg production, the birds are classified as 'spent hens' and are sent off to slaughter. Their brittle, calcium-depleted bones often shatter during handling or at the slaughterhouse. They usually end up in soups, pot pies, or similar low-grade chicken meat products in which their bodies can be shredded to hide the bruises from consumers.”

What’s more, is that for every egg-laying hen cramped in a battery cage, there is a male chick killed at the hatchery. And because genetic selection plays a part in chickens being bred for maximum egg production, these breeds do not grow fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. Therefore, “male chicks of egg-laying breeds are of no economic value, and they are literally discarded on the day they hatch — usually by the cheapest, most convenient means available. Thrown into trash cans by the thousands, male chicks suffocate or are crushed under the weight of others or being ground up alive,” states factoryfarming.com.

Today, a visit to any supermarket will provide consumers with an overwhelming array of egg choices--such as white, brown, organic, cage-free, free-range, Omega 3’s, traditional, etc. Yet, is paying top dollar for a dozen eggs the answer to a “guilt-free” purchase? The unfortunate answer is, No.

After researching a variety of egg brands--many of which state that their "happy hens roam freely in barns" and eat an "all-vegetarian diet", it appears most egg manufacturers are using these terms loosely. For example, Rock Island and Judy’s Family Farm Organic Eggs (both produced by the same company), Trader Joes Organic and Free-Range options, and Safeway’s Organics, all utilize debeaking practices on their hens, and even when they make claims of “cage free/free-range,” the birds still have little room to move around and have limited or no easy access to the outdoors.

Unfortunately, with the food industry's big business practices, egg producers are able to advertise that hens are "cage-free" or "free-range" if they simply provide a small opening or window in the wall of the warehouse giving "access to the outdoors." However, when millions of hens are packed into the area, they still cannot move around “freely,” even when there are no cages present. Additionally, the use of terms such as "cage-free" and "free-range" are neither adequately defined nor strictly enforced by the FDA, so these labeling lies can mislead consumers into paying more for a product based upon false claims.

With all of this information to take into account, what is a conscientious consumer to do? Of course, choosing options other than consuming eggs is best. Plus, research on vegetarian and vegan diets shows that eggs are not a required food source, and there are a wide variety of healthy alternatives. And although it may seem an easier solution to skip a morning meal of scrambled eggs, most people are not familiar with how to substitute eggs when cooking or baking. Yet, there are many products that work just as well, if not better--and all are definitely more healthy than eating eggs.

According to Mayoclinic.com, “In baked goods, try commercial egg replacers — such as Ener-G egg replacer; or you can use the following to replace one egg: 1/4 cup whipped silken tofu or 1 tablespoon milled flax seed mixed with 3 tablespoons of water. Also, unsweetened applesauce and ripe bananas make excellent choices. Plus, for an egg-free omelet you can use tofu instead of eggs.

Yet, if one still insists on having their eggs and eating them too, the best option is to purchase fresh eggs from a local farmer’s market where it is possible to get to know the farmers on an intimate level and learn about ethical choices being made. In so doing, consumers will support small, local farms instead of large, inhumane factory farms. Plus, every time a dollar is spent on sustainable, earth-friendly food products, in turn, one less dollar is spent on conventional, inhumane, manufactured goods--and this is an "egg-cellent" option for all.

**Egg buyers can also visit Sustainable Table’s Website, enter a zip code and find local, sustainable, organic food in their area using the Eat Well Guide.

**For more information on egg substitutes in baking visit About.com