In Vegetarian Society history, vegetarianism means what it sounds like: the custom of preparing, eating, and sharing foods made from a variety of plant sources.
Those who also eat eggs, cream and the like are, to be precise, ovo-lacto-vegetarians.
John Davis, historian for the International Vegetarian Union (the umbrella group of vegetarian societies worldwide), wrote in The Origins of the “Vegetarians” that the word “vegetarian” first appeared between 1838 and 1843, at the Ham House of Ham Common (understandably re-named Alcott House by 1843). The students at this English school, Davis reported, followed a completely plant-based diet, based on the British socialist principles of John Stuart Mill, and the ideas which Bronson Alcott taught in Boston.
Today, vegetarian groups vary in their definitions. Most vegetarians in India never cook with eggs.
But some linguistic capers are afoot. A few months ago, a company in New Delhi launched “low-cholesterol, vegetarian eggs.” In the U.S., the vegetarian-egg label has been spotted at the Trader Joe’s grocery chain. Depending on the target market, the term is used to communicate that the eggs are unfertilized, or that the hens who laid them weren’t fed animal products.
In India especially, the suggestion that certain eggs would be suitable for the vegetarian’s shopping list would change the accepted definition of vegetarian. And that’s just what some corporations would like. To them, India is an untapped market for eggs.
Selling Eggs in India
Skylark Hatcheries is one of India’s largest egg companies.1 Humane Society International (an arm of the Humane Society of the United States), brought Skylark’s management stateside this summer to tour egg factories. Skylark Hatcheries director Surendra Singh said, “After visiting the HSI office and staff, my faith in this society increased.”
Nitin Goel, corporate marketing manager for the Humane Society of the United States in India, also visited. “Around the world,” Goel opined in an HSUS press release, “the trend is away from outdated battery cage systems and toward a more humane and sustainable approach to producing eggs.”2 This ignores the reality that eggs are not part of most traditional foods of India — the birthplace of ahimsa, a rule of conduct that bars the killing or injuring of conscious beings — and that the rapid trend in India to high-volume egg and chicken flesh production is recent; and none of these businesses, regardless of the approach to production, need be promoted at all.3
The National Egg Co-ordination Committee, founded in the early eighties to represent chicken farm owners in India, set out to raise the country’s annual per capita consumption from 19 eggs to about 150 by the end of the twentieth century.4 To this end they’ve pointed out that the eggs produced by their birds are unfertilized and should therefore qualify as vegetarian products.5 They’ve also downplayed cholesterol concerns and advertised egg protein as “second only to mother’s milk for human nutrition.” (It’s no surprise that the chickpeas, peas, lentils and rice that sustained centuries of traditional Indian cuisine contain complete sources of protein.)
“Do not eat eggs,” warned the Indian Vegetarian Congress when egg promoters turned up at a marathon in western India in 1987.6 You’d think animal protectionists could see it in their hearts to back that message. Or at least not thwart it. The Humane Society of the United States holds itself out as the “mainstream force against cruelty, exploitation and neglect.” You might think, then, that the HSUS would steer clear of promoting the eating of any eggs, especially amongst groups that historically haven’t touched them.
I’ll leave to your imagination — or to the excellent educators at HumaneMyth.org — a picture of what happens to the exhausted hens and the male chicks owned by these egg companies. And to the extent that any hens truly do receive more space, that’s space on the face of a finite Earth (read: habitat for other animals) bulldozed over by development and industry.7 It’s bizarre on several levels, then, to see animal advocates lavishing praise and international travel on an egg company.
But the Humane Society’s egg crusaders are on a roll. Just a few months before the Indian executives were flown to its offices, a release appeared from a competing group, the American Humane Association, which had certified cage-free and organic lines from Eggland’s Best, “America’s No. 1 branded egg,” as “produced humanely.”8 The release called this certification “a watershed moment for the growing humane animal certification movement.” The American Humane Association also pointed out that (in 1999) they developed the first such certification process in the United States.
American Humane promised marketing benefits to producers who would pick their label, and the release offered a platform for the CEO of Eggland’s Best to talk about “delivering the best tasting and most nutritious eggs to our consumers.”
After a few years of similar promotions in the United States, eggs from “cage-free” hens have become so popular that national shortages were reported by 2007.9
This year, the Humane Society of the United States issued a press release which “praised Kegg Farms today for being the first egg producer in India” to introduce the term “cage-free” on egg packages.10 An industry publication noted the “shower of praise” this company was getting for the new “cage-free” label11; and the Humane Society even circulated its own picture with the caption “Cage-free hens at Kegg Farms,” showing a large collection of snow-white birds.
But look around a bit at the business publications, and you’ll learn more: “Kegg Farms’ genetically-bred chicken survives on waste, weighs more and gives more eggs than the normal village bird.”
That’s right. The vaunted Kegg company is noted for pressing chickens to turn out five times as many eggs in their “18-month cycle” as other birds, and ensuring they’re genetically bred to eat waste.
More Than a Diet
To the founders of the Vegetarian Society — both in England and in North America — vegetarianism was an ethical commitment. By the early 1900s, the Vegetarian Society’s Vegetarian Messenger expressly supported a diet free of eggs and dairy, listing both ethical and health objections to the use of these foods. The claim that products derived from chickens are “vegetarian” is incompatible with this history.
Animal advocates who see the use of birds as fundamentally unjust would simply withhold their support for such businesses. They could then ask others to similarly disengage from the industry, thereby cultivating a movement that respects traditions of dynamic nonviolence.
True animal advocacy supports and joins, rather than confounds, the vegetarian movement.
- HSUS press release: “Indian Egg Industry Leaders Travel to USA to Explore Cage-Free Housing Systems for Hens” (10 Jun. 2008). [↩]
- In the “Facts” section of same release, the HSUS states: “While cage-free does not mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have 250 percent to 300 percent more space per bird and the hens are able to act more naturally than caged hens. Cage-free hens may not be able to go outside, but they are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests — all behaviors denied to hens confined in battery cages.” Tribe of Heart’s “Take the ‘Cage-Free’ Test” offers a sobering counterpoint. [↩]
- For a description of vegetarian resistance to egg promotions in India, see Sanjoy Hazarika, “Campaign for Egg Eating Stirs Storm in India,” New York Times (27 Dec. 1987). The same promotional trend surrounds the bodies of chickens themselves. Spotting an emerging market, Tyson Foods Inc. this year acquired majority ownership of Godrej Foods Ltd., forming Godrej Tyson Foods, with annual sales to begin around $50 million and grow as the corporation expands. India has more than a billion people, and while the per capita consumption of chicken flesh is currently less than five pounds a year, its annual growth rate of more than 10 percent is among the world’s highest. See Tom Johnston, “Tyson Enters Joint Venture in India,” MeatingPlace.com (30 Jun. 2008; quoting Rick Greubel, international president for Tyson Foods). [↩]
- “Campaign for Egg Eating Stirs Storm in India” (note 3; quoting the committee’s spokesperson, P. V. R. Murthy). [↩]
- See ibid. [↩]
- “Campaign for Egg Eating Stirs Storm in India” (note 3). [↩]
- Underscoring this point is a recent study by Adrian Williams, PhD., senior research fellow at Cranfield University in Britain, indicating battery egg production has a 10% lower impact on global warming than conversion to all free-range egg production; converting to all organic egg production, the study predicts, would cause an increase of effects on global warming by 40%. This is because free-range and organic farms have more need for green space, food and energy than battery eggs. [↩]
- The American Humane Association’s news release “Eggland’s Best To Receive Certification By American Humane Association” (8 Oct. 2007) was followed a week later by a similarly worded release in Food & Drink Quarterly. [↩]
- Kim Severson, “Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate,” International Herald Tribune (25 Jul. 2007). [↩]
- HSI press release: “Kegg Farms Becomes First Indian Egg Producer to Label Eggs ‘Cage-Free’” (2 Apr. 2008) (visited 2 Jul. 2008). For more on the entanglement of animal-advocacy organizations with global animal agribusiness, see the Humane Myth Analysis of the Humane Society of the United States and its new ‘Humane Choice’ label. [↩]
- The Poultry Site: “Indian Egg-layers Escape the Cage,” Poultry News (10 Apr. 2008) (visited 2 Jul. 2008). [↩]