What the Devil are Vegetarian Eggs?

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 “Around the world,” Goel opined in an HSUS press release, “the trend is away from outdated battery cage systems and toward a more humane and sustainable approach to producing eggs.”2 This ignores the reality that eggs are not part of most traditional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.

  1. HSUS press release: “Indian Egg Industry Leaders Travel to USA to Explore Cage-Free Housing Systems for Hens” (10 Jun. 2008). []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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). []
  4. “Campaign for Egg Eating Stirs Storm in India” (note 3; quoting the committee’s spokesperson, P. V. R. Murthy). []
  5. See ibid. []
  6. “Campaign for Egg Eating Stirs Storm in India” (note 3). []
  7. 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. []
  8. 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. []
  9. Kim Severson, “Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate,” International Herald Tribune (25 Jul. 2007). []
  10. 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. []
  11. The Poultry Site: “Indian Egg-layers Escape the Cage,” Poultry News (10 Apr. 2008) (visited 2 Jul. 2008). []

Lee Hall is legal director for Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Lee can be reached at: leehall@friendsofanimals.org. Follow Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganMeans. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Thomas Mc said on July 15th, 2008 at 11:36am #

    Coming soon: Vegetarian beef, chicken and pork!

  2. Dustin G. Rhodes said on July 15th, 2008 at 12:51pm #

    Of all the animals that are commodified, exploited, killed and eaten, my deepest grief is extended towards the billions of chickens in the world who end up as “vegetarian egg” producers or another McSandwich. It’s utterly heartbreaking just to ~read~ about chickens. Can you imagine living (I use the term loosely) as one?

    Thank you for this enlightening piece.

  3. Leila Fusfeld said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:35pm #

    When my mom called me over in the store because she found “vegetarian eggs,” my head started spinning. Was this a new egg replacer, such as Ener-G? As we walked to the refrigerator section, I bombarded her with questions. Were they actually eggs? What did they mean by vegetarian? How could eggs be vegetarian, unless they more loosely mean ovo-lacto-vegetarian, in which case they are no more or less vegetarian than the next brand. Looking at the package it was clear to me that they were regular old eggs. What was not clear to me was why they were labeled vegetarian, and why that wasn’t misleading advertising. Well, thanks to Lee, I have my answer. They’re eggs popped out by vegetarian-FED chickens (probably in contrast to the cannibalism they are normally forced to endure). Oh, and it’s not misleading advertising because the organizations that lobbied the better business bureau were more concerned with how humane the packaging of eggs sounds when the eggs aren’t “cage free” than with the problem of people thinking eggs can be vegetarian, or that “cage free” is ethical.

  4. gigi said on July 15th, 2008 at 9:55pm #

    Vegetarian eggs: what an oxymoron! Of course the West comes in and destroys the traditions of the East with lies and fabrications of introducing “eggs”; meanwhile the chickens continue to suffer cruelty.
    Next I read that Bill Gates is sending osteoporsis, blood and pus to the people in African countries; insanity! It is ridiculous and such a waste of money and health to ALL of these unknowing and trusting people! These African people just need the money for growing more grains and plants on their lands; NOT disease causing dairy products!
    These people “think” they are doing good…. but it is all “WRONG”.

  5. Rich Griffin said on July 16th, 2008 at 5:48am #

    Thankfully, there are tons of great substitues for eggs to make delicious recipes!! (: Go vegan!!! (:

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 16th, 2008 at 6:44am #

    Lee Hall

    You might find of interest my post to Gary Kaposta’s article of July 11, 2008, right here at Dissident Voice, titled The Obesification of America. Or are you another of Sunil Sharma’s “hit-and-run” article posters at Dissident Voice?

    Lloyd Rowsey

  7. Maryanne Appel said on July 16th, 2008 at 9:47am #

    It is alarming to witness the lengths that the egg industry will go to ensure even greater profits for its vile business. But even more alarming is the fact that so-called humane organizations are participating in the lie that vegetarian-fed (hmm, I never associated
    “waste” with vegetarianism) chickens lay eggs that are more fit for human consumption and more humane than, well, just plain eggs. For “humane” organizations to push inhumane products reveals their true purpose, i.e., to please as many people as possible, thereby increasing their membership, and the dues that come with it (six figure salaries don’t come cheap).

    Just as the U.S. beef and dairy industries are pushing their products onto the plates of the Chinese population, so the egg industry is pushing its product onto the plates of the Indian population. With all of the free advertising the animal-use industries are receiving from huge national and international “welfare” groups, their bottom lines will increase that much faster, along with the misery of the animals who will suffer in even greater numbers because of the “compassionate campaigns” of those supposed welfare organizations.

  8. thrillracer said on July 16th, 2008 at 1:07pm #

    I thought eggs on the market already were supposed to be unfertilized. Or are they little abortions or something? I thought the point to eschewing eggs was to not use & exploit chickens and to avoid consuming products of ovary cycles. How gross would it be if people ate human eggs? They may be microscopic, but it would still be disgusting. Why do people eat caviar? Thats’ gotta be one of the nastiest things humans have decided to eat. Ewwww….

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 16th, 2008 at 2:29pm #

    Thanks posters. I eat a lot of raw egg-whites for protein. And not without considerable trepidation for myself and guilt about the condition of industrially-raised chickens. Nonetheless, I am not a vegan, or a vegetarian, or even meat-free.

    If you be interested in a website of a very artistic and political lady (who might sometime seem to be more concerned about cats than humans), you should visit Alice at:

    White Light Black Light.

    (I also feed and house two cats.)

  10. Eric said on July 16th, 2008 at 2:48pm #

    Lloyd,

    Lee has published here at Dissident Voice numerous times. Take a look.

  11. Patricia said on July 16th, 2008 at 3:35pm #

    As Thrillracer surmises, most eggs sold aren’t fertilized. Even if the cockerel (which I believe is known as a rooster in the US) could open the cage to get at the hens and even if he could get in with all those hens in there there’d be no room for him to perform since those poor hens are squashed up tight together 24 hours a day.
    Lloyd needs to watch out for salmonella in raw egg and remember that (a) it’s possible to consume too much protein for health, (b) all food contains protein and (c) it is impossible to be short of protein if you consume enough calories to stay alive.

  12. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 17th, 2008 at 6:12am #

    Thank you, Eric and Patricia. DV’s busy putting up new articles now, I think, so I’ll search the Archives for “Lee Hall” later today.

  13. Doris Lin said on July 17th, 2008 at 9:13am #

    So originally, “vegetarian” meant “vegan”?! That’s very interesting.

    Certifying eggs as “cage-free” is problematic, but encouraging people to eat eggs when they don’t already eat eggs crosses a very big line. If you are convincing egg producers to go “cage free” at least there is an argument that you are improving conditions for the chickens. But no one helps chickens by encouraging more egg-eating, no matter how “humane” the producer is.

  14. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 17th, 2008 at 7:02pm #

    Hi, Doris. I consulted Merrian-Webster online and found that a “vegan” not only abstains from all animal foods and diary products, but is also: “one who abstains from using animal products (as leather).”

    But, Good Grief, Charlie Brown!! I KNOW I’m not helping chickens by eating eggs.

  15. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 17th, 2008 at 7:11pm #

    Eric. You’re joking, right? Of the 221 results (including Lee as in sleep, and as in leer), some (small?) number are articles written by Lee Hall.

    To my knowledge there is no way to search DV on a name and return only articles written by that person.

  16. Lee Hall said on July 17th, 2008 at 9:30pm #

    Hi, Lloyd, if you are looking for past articles, the ones published since the Dissident Voice renovation are easy to find by scrolling up this page, just above the first comment (and just below the footnotes), where you’ll find a pink bar. It links them. Thank you for writing your thoughts.

    Yes, the link to “Origins of the Vegetarians” (in the third paragraph of this article) is worth a look. It indicates that the early vegetarians did have what we’d call a vegan perspective. Some important community-based activism involves encouraging local vegetarian societies to align their by-laws (in the section that defines “vegetarian” with reference to the foods to be bought for or offered at events) with that perspective. (Many local vegetarian groups already do have a clear vegan policy written into their by-laws, and they should be thanked and encouraged for it.)

    As you might know, the word “vegan” was taken from the first and last letters of “vegetarian” to signify that the vegan commitment takes vegetarianism to its logical conclusion. Vegan Society founder Donald Watson was a life member of the Vegetarian Society and was delighted to see international vegetarian conventions take the cue and serve completely vegan food. Chef Ken Bergeron of the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest uses no animal products; meals throughout the five-day event (which draws some 600 attendees) are all vegan, nutritiously complete, and quite attractively presented.

    And Doris, yes, it is jarring to see a specific group’s interest in spreading its animal-husbandry standards become so keen that a new market for animal products is lent encouragement so those standards can be applied. When animal-protection groups find symbiosis with the growth of animal agribusiness, it’s clear that the movement for animal rights is located elsewhere.

    Animal rights represents a paradigm shift. Activists, educators, and journalists need to stop conflating the big-money animal-protection industry (which may and often does function as animal-use-protection) with animal rights. Dissident Voice is one of the very few publications making space for this message.

  17. Doris Lin said on July 17th, 2008 at 10:57pm #

    Lloyd, for what it’s worth, you can find a list of Lee Hall’s articles here:
    http://www.dissidentvoice.org/author/LeeHall/

  18. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 18th, 2008 at 10:59am #

    Thank you, Doris Lin. I can find all Lee’s articles at the DV homepage, simply by inserting “author/LeeHall” after “.org/” in the address box at the top, and clicking on the “go” button.

    It’s worth the trouble.

    And thank you, Lee. For further information on the history of vegetarianism and the word “vegan”.

  19. John said on July 18th, 2008 at 1:37pm #

    Since I’m a producer and marketer of cage free eggs, I hope you all don’t mind comments from the dark side. I just want to applaud the skepticism regarding the use of the term “vegetarian eggs”. I refuse to put it on my own label and cringe when others put it on theirs. Aside from the obvious offense it causes those who eschew eggs altogether for humane reasons, I found out recently that many consumers think the term means that the chickens are roaming around on pasture, eating green leafy things and the occassional worm. Consequently, these eggs often outsell their organic counterpart because the buyer has been duped into thinking that the vegetarian egg is better than the organic by the very nature of the word”vegetarian”.

    I believe the term “vegetarian eggs” was actually first coined as a cynical swipe at vegetarians. Because of the “heat” the conventional egg industry was and is feeling from animal welfare groups, it’s a way to make a subtle dig. Worse yet, through the law of unintended consequences, it has been wildly successful for the reason stated above, and now others are using the term just to stay competitive. Here’s how it came about: Roughly 2% of conventional layer mash includes rendered animal fat. The animal fat is used to boost energy and thereby increase production. The only problem is that it brings with it the threat of illness being transmitted to the chicken and then to those who eat the egg. Many of us cage free egg producers began taking animal fat out of the diet and making the claim “No Animal Fat In Feed” back in the ninties. Then someone, I can’t remember who, started claiming these kind of eggs were produced from hens fed a “vegetarian” diet because there was no animal fat in the feed. Pretty lame and worse, deceptive. I don’t think that anyone who is vegetarian or vegan would describe a diet of 60% non-human grade feed corn and 40% non human grade soy bean would as a vegetarian diet. Those two together consitute 80 % of the feed mix for layer feed. The rest are supplemental grains like barley and then just supplements, vitamins that is.
    Incredibly, some egg companies have used the term and still house the layer hens in cages.

    You’re right to think that cage free production isn’t very pretty, but I would say that if it is certified under an ISO audited third party certifier like Humane Farm Animal Care, there are some marketed improvements in conditions. Such improvements would be increased space required per hen, natural light, perching and dust bathing areas, as well as the obvious benfit of being out of cages as long as they have adequate space. You can look up HFAC’s Certified Humane standards for egg layers on their website.

  20. Patricia said on July 18th, 2008 at 1:39pm #

    More information about Donald Watson and his friends who founded The Vegan Society in November 1944 (hence World Vegan Day being 1 November every year) can be found on http://www.vegansociety.com.

  21. Patricia said on July 18th, 2008 at 1:45pm #

    I and at least 500 other people will be at the International Vegetarian Union’s conference the week after next. It is being held in Dresden, where the first one was held a hundred years ago. As is now always the case with IVU (and European Vegetarian Union) events, all the catering will be vegan, which ensures not only that it will be completely cruelty-free but will be acceptable to participants from all over the world (China, India, Brazil and the US as well as most if not all countries in Europe) and of various religions and none.

  22. Lee Hall said on July 18th, 2008 at 7:49pm #

    Patricia: Question for you. As it’s now always the case — this sensible idea of catering so that all IVU events are completely vegetarian (i.e., vegan) — could the definition of “vegetarian” which one sees on a current “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the IVU website be changed to reflect that to the public?

    http://www.ivu.org/faq/definitions.html

    Would you be able to bring this up in Dresden?

    I understand the allowance for eggs and dairy products was inserted into the IVU website after the 1996 World Vegetarian Congress. Yet ethics, history, consistency, cultural inclusiveness, and environmental awareness all point the way to a definition that excludes the products of animal agribusiness.