The ethics of eggs

I have long been of the view that vegetarianism is smart for three major reasons: because of the hygienic problems with how almost all meat is produced, because of the animal suffering associated, and because of the unsustainable character of modern agriculture, especially meat production. That being said, I do think that meat can be ethical to eat, when it is produced in ways that do not have these problems. Indeed, choosing to eat ethical meat may be morally preferable to eating no meat at all, because doing so could encourage the emergence of a better food system.

One problem with the hygiene/suffering/ecology justification is that it applies to things other than meat, including dairy products and leather. As The Economist points out, egg production may be an especially egregious violator of all three sets of ethical norms:

Over the past few decades every sector of American agriculture has undergone dramatic consolidation. The egg industry is no exception. In 1987, 95% of the country’s output came from 2,500 producers; today, that figure is a mere 192. Though the salmonella problem appeared to affect two dozen brands, those were all traced back to just two firms in Iowa, the top egg-producing state. Critics suggest that this shrivelling of the supply chain leaves consumers vulnerable to bad luck or bad behaviour. Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported this week that a recent visit to Wright County Egg, one of the Iowan firms responsible for the recall, found rats, maggots and manure piled several metres high at or near the egg-producing facilities. Robert Reich, a former labour secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration calls these “corporate crimes” and argues that “government doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors or lawyers to bring every rotten egg to trial.”

That points to the other culprit: poor regulation. Shockingly, state officials do not inspect eggs in Iowa, and federal authority is fractured among several supervisory agencies. This bureaucratic tangle is a well-known problem. Bill Clinton promised stronger regulations for eggs in the 1990s. Broader reform is needed, advocates have long insisted, as more Americans eat food that is imported, prepared in restaurants and produced at huge plants. In March 2009 Barack Obama created a “food safety working group” to study the existing maze of regulations and suggest improvements. But reform has been too slow. Officials at the FDA argue that stricter regulations that came into force on July 9th would, had they been implemented earlier, have probably prevented the egg crisis. An “unfortunate irony”, declares Margaret Hamburg, the FDA’s boss.

To me, the appropriate response to all of this seems to be threfold:

  1. When possible, avoid purchasing or consuming animal products that are produced in problematic ways
  2. Consider buying such products when they are produced according to high ethical standards, in order to encourage the emergence of producers who use such approaches
  3. Encourage the emergence of laws, regulations, and policies that curb the most problematic practices

Given the way in which most of the world’s meat, eggs, milk, etc come from very problematic sources – and given the degree to which there are animal products in everything – every person who is trying to be conscientious needs to choose a balance point, with convenience and the risk of offending friends and family on one side and ethical ideals on the other. Exactly where that should lie is a personal choice, though information like that in the quoted article certainly provides a stronger factual basis for favouring one side over the other.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “The ethics of eggs”

  1. Why does the word “vegan” not appear in this post? What is the difference between “veganism” as you understand it, and your recommendations? What counts as “high ethical standards” to you? Why do you not think we should encourage laws that curb anything but the most problematic practices?

  2. Given the amount of this post which is dedicated to “egg production”, do you find it strange that the word “chicken” does not appear?

    Who makes eggs?

  3. “every person who is trying to be conscientious needs to choose a balance point, with convenience and the risk of offending friends and family on one side and ethical ideals on the other. ”

    How can “the risk of offending friends and family” be balanced against the torture and enslavement of sentient beings? Is not even the way this moral dilemma is being posed itself morally problematic?

  4. “In recent times, protein-deficient humans throughout the world have argued that animals should have the same rights as humans. These far-left herbivores consider their pets as equals even though their contributions to society are meager. In the Book of Genesis, God gave mankind dominion over non-humans. Since it is written in the Bible, Republicans insist on honoring this idea thoroughly and without question. To honor our lord and earn a place beside him in the afterlife we must kill, eat, torture and mock lesser creatures on a daily basis. Recently, God created Youtube and the McDonald’s dollar menu so that these tasks can be performed more conveniently.

    It is morally acceptable to kill animals because they lack the feelings and emotions that humans have. Scientists and drug-abusing hippies believe that animals can communicate with one another and organize themselves to perform essential tasks. These ‘tasks’ include sniffing each other’s asses and defecating in their own yard.”

  5. Interesting. We were just talking about the ethics of eating meat a few days ago, and I was wondering how one would go about finding a more ethical source. Where do you get your meat in Ottawa, Milan?

  6. I don’t eat meat. I don’t think it is worth the trouble required to find one of the very few available sources of ethical stuff.

  7. “I was wondering how one would go about finding a more ethical source.”

    Does this question even make any sense? Is a “more ethical” source which is still unethical acceptable?

    The question of the rightness of an action is simply that – is it a right action or not. Not “is it more or less good or bad, better than this, worse than that”.

  8. In a situation where no (or few) good options exist, the force that drives the emergence of better options is people demanding improvement. You have argued the same thing yourself, when it comes to rail travel: diesel powered trains may not be ideal, but when people use them it encourages the deployment of electrified rail.

    Similarly, buying things like meat raised in non-cruel ways encourages the emergence of a more ethical food system.

    Related: On the possibility of leading an ethical life

  9. So, what standards currently exist which reflect a future, ethically decent, egg and dairy industry?

  10. Egg-Faced
    The egg producers most responsible for the salmonella outbreak face the klieg lights.
    By Timothy Noah
    Posted Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010, at 8:19 PM ET

    Imagine that you are Peter DeCoster, chief operating officer for Wright County Egg Farms, which produced most of the eggs recalled in the salmonella outbreak. On the morning you are to testify before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, a Page One story in the New York Times points out that a precursor to this family-owned operation called DeCoster Egg Farms was, under the operation of your father, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, largely responsible for an earlier salmonella epidemic in the 1980s. (It’s already been demonstrated that DeCoster family operations occasioned many previous regulatory controversies.) Now the DeCosters are the major player in the largest recorded salmonella outbreak since the government started tracking them in the early 1970s, and they have to explain themselves to an angry public.

    What do you do? You blame your feed supplier!

    “At this time,” DeCoster told the committee, “we cannot be absolutely certain of the root cause of the contamination of eggs we produced. However, the committee may want to know that we view the most likely root cause of contamination to be meat and bone meal that was an ingredient in our feed.”

    Preparation of the chicken feed used at Wright County Egg Farms, DeCoster explained, involves

    cooking carcasses to a temperature that would eliminate [salmonella]. However, as always in food safety matters, there is potential for re-contamination, either at the rendering facility, in transportation from the rendering facility or, subsequently, after the meat and bone meal is delivered to Wright County Egg. In particular, contaminated meat and bone meal that entered our bin for that ingredient could have contaminated the bin and the additional meat and bone meal that was subsequently added to the bin.

    The members of the oversight and investigations subcommittee are not experts on food safety. If DeCoster wants to blame his supplier, or the trucks that brought the feed in from the supplier, there’s little they can do to disprove him. So it fell to Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to point out (after most reporters had already filed their stories) that an FDA inspection of Wright County Eggs’ Iowa chicken houses conducted Aug. 12-30 identified “multiple” possible sources for the salmonella outbreak, including rodent infestations, piles of dead hens, standing water, live and dead flies “too numerous to count,” and uncaged birds climbing a manure pile so high that its weight pushed open a henhouse door. Many of these conditions violated an FDA egg-safety rule—its first-ever to prevent salmonella outbreaks—that went into effect the month before.

  11. So, what standards currently exist which reflect a future, ethically decent, egg and dairy industry?

    In the European Union, there are much stronger restrictions on the routine use of antibiotics on livestock. There are also various certifications reflecting what chickens are fed, how they are housed, and so on. Such improvements result when people demand better products, and express their support for them through purchashing decisions.

  12. “Such improvements result when people demand better products, and express their support for them through purchashing decisions.”

    Really – these improvements were driven by “purchasing decisions”? They had nothing to do with Green Parties holding swing votes? They had nothing to do with the work of activist organizations, protests, education campaigns?

    Do “people” ever “demand” better products? Or, do people always choose from the products available? And when people choose the “better product”, do they have, on average, any knowledge of what the certification means other than what is actually written on the product itself?

  13. One of my posts is relevant to this discussion:

    “Zizek’s critique of charity is based on an essentially simple idea: a genuine moral impulse to combat a real problem can be displaced towards an action which, although carefully constructed (or simply by happenstance) satisfies the impulse, fails to combat the problem which gave rise to the impulse. Thereby, the initial moral problem which gave rise to the impulse is rendered impotent – unable to engender motivational capacity which might have otherwise led to legitimate remedies.”

  14. What are the standards by which the chickens that produce your eggs are treated? What are the debeaking practices, what is done with chickens who fall ill, what is done with chickens who under-produce, what other methods are used to increase production, and what is done with the chickens when they get too old?

  15. Perhaps egg-eating is an area in which abstinence can legitimately be demanded from members of the population at large. It is totally optional – after all – though it would make eating out at restaurants and the homes of friends awkward.

    Ethically, the question of whether the demand is legitimate raises questions about individual action within problematic systems, as well as the relationship between ethics and freedom. Tactically, calling for egg-abstinence raises issues about human psychology. If you are aggressive about trying to push people farther than they want to go, sometimes you help prevent things from improving.

  16. That really isn’t answering the question. The question concerns facts on the ground about how animals are treated, and how it’s acceptable to treat animals. And, that’s a question of research, and then a question of education. So – what are you doing to educate yourself on how animals are treated, and how are you helping to educate others? Or, do you think personal abstinence removes moral responsibility?

    If you think consuming appropriately to make things better is a serious option, then you need to actually find out how things can get better, which firms are at the forefront, what forces can drive legislation, what means exist to enforce legislation – and you need to educate others. Otherwise, you’re just reasoning with yourself – and morality is not about what you do by yourself by what you do living in a society where you are not the only person. If there were only person in the world, it’s not clear at all that anything like morality could possibly exist.

  17. I’m extremely judgemental against those who defend their own ignorance and refusal to educate themselves. It seems quite hypocritical for you to insist that people educate themselves about climate change because our failure to act will hurt future generations, and yet insist that you not be demanded to educate yourself about factory farming, imperialism, worker exploitation, in short lots of problems that affect billions of sentient creatures, both human and non human, and they affect them right now – not off in some distant future which, due to the possibility of nuclear war, might never exist anyway.

  18. “Puppy mills”
    A dog’s life
    Direct democracy cares for canines

    Nov 11th 2010 | Kansas City | from PRINT EDITION

    ODD as it seems, the state of Missouri is home to 1,462 licensed commercial dog breeders. Between them, they breed about 1m puppies a year. About 40% of all the dogs that end up in pet shops across America are born in Missouri’s smaller country towns.

    Some breeding places hardly bear inspection. Cori Menkin, senior director of legislative initiatives for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has seen “horrific” conditions there, with up to 1,000 breeding bitches under one roof. The worst of these “puppy mills” are filthy with urine and piled-up faeces. The animals have such matted coats that they cannot defecate properly. Some bitches freeze to death; others spend their whole lives on wire-floored cages, unable to walk on solid ground. “Whenever you are engaging in an industry that uses live animals and is seeking to make as much profit as possible, less money is put into the business, meaning less care is provided for the animals,” Ms Menkin says.

    Animal-rights supporters claim that the laws governing these breeding sheds are vague, unenforceable and insufficient to maintain even the most rudimentary care. This is why they gathered more than 190,000 signatures in support of the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act—an exercise in direct democracy that was passed on November 2nd to improve conditions in the state’s breeding facilities.

  19. Zizek turns on the treatment of animals
    December 10, 2010 by northernsong

    Nov 12 2010, the Birkbeck Institute:

    “My next example is Animal rights. I mean I am not becoming a Pete Singer, don’t be afraid of that. But nonetheless, I read recently this book by Derrida, and it has a nice point. Namely, to what extent our everyday life is based on this fetishist disavowal: “Je sais bien mais quand meme” (I know well, but anyway). We know what we are doing to animals, and I don’t even like these stories of laboratories because these are the exception. Because everyday, you know how chicken are grown, you know how pigs are grown. It’s a nightmare, but how do we survive? We know it, but we act as if we do not know. And Derrida has here a wonderful description in his book, “This Animal that I am”, of this kind of primordial scene when a wounded animal looks at you – this is the primordial gaze of the other. And here he makes a wonderful stab at Levinas – Levinas explicitly excludes animals from the gaze of the other. And here I’m a little bit sentimental in the sense that I remember years ago I saw a photo of a cat, immediately after this cat was submitted to some unpleasant experiment. This experiment was under the pretext of testing how a living organism, how much pressure and hits can it endure. It’s not immediately clear to me how this would help people. This cat was put in a centrifuge and it turned like crazy. What you then see was a cat with broken limbs, and most shocking to me most of its hair was gone. But it was still alive and just looking into the camera. And here I would like to ask the Hegelian question – what did the cat see in us. What kind of a monster. Not what the cat is for us, but what we were for the cat at this point. This monstrosity is something to think about. So again, another ignored violence.”

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