What would ethical egg production look like? And how would we get there?

To make the point of the previous post a little more concrete, let’s think about what truly ethical egg production would look like from a “moral vegetarian” perspective. Remember, the moral vegetarian isn’t opposed to all forms of animal use, but opposes those uses that constitute exploitation (i.e., harm the interests of the animals involved).

It seems that, for egg production to be ethical (i.e., non-exploitative), it would have to meet at least these conditions:

– hens have access to the outdoors and the space and opportunity to engage in natural behavior;
– no debeaking;
– no forced molting;
– no routine killing of male chicks; and
– hens are allowed to live out something approximating a natural life span.

As the Humane Society points out, the most common labels that consumers might take to indicate a higher standard of treatment (“free range,” “cage free,” “organic,” etc.) permit at least some of these practices, and in only some cases do they require third-party auditing of compliance. Only eggs labeled “Animal Welfare Approved” are produced in ways that avoid most of these objectionable practices; yet, as HSUS says, “there are no participating producers that sell to supermarkets.” (Though the Animal Welfare Approved website lists participating producers from whom you can buy directly.)

So, it seems that for the moral vegetarian, the goal should be to support egg producers that meet, or are at least moving toward meeting, standards like the Animal Welfare Approved ones. The question, then, is: are they doing that by buying, say, “cage-free” eggs (as I do myself from time to time)? Does buying cage-free eggs serve to nudge producers in the direction of more stringent standards? Or does it send a signal that cage-free is enough and consumers won’t demand anything further?

In light of Tzachi Zamir’s argument, it’s a question of whether this is a case of selective consumption that supports progress or one that leads to moral complacency. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is here, but I’d feel better if I was more sure it was the former.

4 thoughts on “What would ethical egg production look like? And how would we get there?

  1. I bought eggs today and was thinking about just this thing. I could choose between “organic” and “cage free.” Which one is “better?” Am I right to suppose that “organic” refers to their diet but not necessarily the conditions in which they’re housed, and “cage free” is just the opposite?

  2. Organic only refers to what they are fed, so you are right there, Marvin. The problem is that cage-free has become sort of a meaningless label. This isn’t to say that it is always misleading/incorrect, but as there was increased demand for cage free eggs, some people made cosmetic changes that fundamentally didn’t make the lives of chickens better. Other people, while still engaging in unacceptable practices (debeaking, slaughters of newborn males, etc) did make egg production possible in better ways. If you are going to buy eggs, they should be cage free eggs. You probably should do some basic internet research for brands where the chickens are treated better.

    Lee, let me ask a related question: Do you think that large scale (national, or even regional) production of eggs is possible that meets the criteria that you laid out? And if possible, do you think that it is possible to do that and produce eggs that are cheaper than, say, a dollar per an egg?

  3. Scu, that’s exactly my question: is “vegetarian utopia” even a live possibility? That’s why I’d like “moral vegetarians” to be more explicit about what they think an acceptable end-state would be. I must say, it does seem to me that the economic efficiencies required for large-scale production tend to cut against animal well-being, so I’m not hopeful.

  4. Paul C

    Hi, I have read all this because of my own interest and intention to move to the best option I can get for animals to be safe from unnatural and cruel practices. I am currently a Vegetarian, and obviously have a dilemma with a `pre-planned` life for farm animals, and would wish to be able to consume eggs and milk, but not at any cost to the animal. I do however see that the Vegetarian Ideal could be reality, but probably not in an industrial sense. If, for example, I could keep my own chickens, I would, and I feel that they would certainly get good care and the young males would be catered for, even at a loss. This relationship would not only benefit us both, but provide me with a product I find morally acceptable, and at the same time promote the existence of the animal in it`s own right. Cows, perhaps are not a good subject for individual `garden` farming, and I don`t see how large scale operations could exist either, without massive costs, which in the end would have to be met by the buyer. To be fair, the milk (not meat, which certainly involves a kill-by date) should be a luxury item anyway, so maybe we have just grown used to expecting a cheap product at any expense of morals. I do believe the Vegetarian Utopia could exist, but only at high expense. I also believe that should not be a reason why it should never come about. At the end of the day, if we want a diamond ring, we get a diamond, even though glass or a substitute are so easy to get instead. Oil was once a very cheap item and is becoming scarce, and therefore expensive, which is perhaps what it should always have been, but people will still buy. Lives are more precious than any cost can determine, but promoting a good relationship with humans helps us all for the larger good.

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