If Hens Lay Eggs Anyway, Why Wouldn't Vegans Eat Them?

The humble egg sits at the intersection of food ethics, philosophy, lifestyle and modern industrialization. Kai Schwabe/Getty Images

You've probably heard of a vegan — someone who sticks to an animal-free, plant-based diet for ethical reasons. And there are vegetarians, of course, who avoid meat but would consider an egg a great source of protein. But have you heard of a veggan? That's somebody who is vegan, except they eat eggs.

Your reaction to this news probably lands somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle of outrage, apathy and a giant, exaggerated eye roll. But for people who spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of eating, eggs can be a sticking point: chickens lay eggs regardless of whether they're fertilized by a rooster. And since an unfertilized egg doesn't have any prospects for hatching into a chicken, and the chicken probably doesn't have any plans for it other than getting the thing out of its cloaca, it should be up for grabs, right? Hurting no one?


Well, to many people the answer to that question is a definite, "It depends, but... maybe?" According to a vegan, who consumes or uses no animal product, the answer is clear: No.

To begin with, it's important to understand why vegans eat the way they do. Most vegans consider it unethical to consume or commodify the bodies or products of other animals. Some won't eat honey, although bees produce it naturally, because it commodifies the work of a living organism.

For a vegan, breeding chickens for eggs is ethically akin to breeding humans in order to harvest their fingernails. Sure, we don't really need our fingernails, but we can agree breeding a person just for their fingernails would be exceptionally lame — almost as lame as the conditions would probably be in the hypothetical factory farms full of millions of fingernail-growing humans.

For some vegans, it's the conditions in heavily industrialized egg farms that makes our consumption of eggs unethical, but even smaller farms are problematic by the standards of most:  

"Even hens who live on small, outdoor, 'humane' farms are usually killed after two to five years, as their egg production naturally goes down as they age," says Lenore Braford, founder of the Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge in Pittsboro, North Carolina. "It is a simple fact that farmers, whose bottom line is profit, won't continue to spend money feeding birds who are not producing a large number of eggs for them to sell."

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Vegans object to the commodification of living creatures, and avoid eating food derived from them because of that.
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And the old hens aren't the only ones who have reason to side-eye the egg business. Even cage-free, free-range, organic egg companies consider male chicks a byproduct of their industry — millions of them are killed each year because they can't lay eggs, and don't grow fast enough to be raised and harvested for their meat.

But vegans also generally avoid eggs laid by happy backyard chickens that cluck and scratch around in the grass all day.

"While one could argue that those hens are living great lives and doing what they would normally do, they are still not living in natural conditions where they would be laying fertilized eggs," says Krissi Vandenberg, executive director of the nonprofit organization Vegan Action. "Secondly, an ethical vegan embraces the ideal of not needing or using animals or their products in order to live a healthy and compassionate life, which includes not viewing them or their products as consumables."

So is there anything one can do, according to a vegan, with the eggs chickens bred to lay have laid? Braford suggests giving it back to the chicken:

"Many chickens benefit greatly from eating cooked eggs," she says. "This is important for them because a large amount of the calories they are eating are put into producing the daily egg, and not into their own bodies. It is common practice for farm animal sanctuaries to feed eggs back to their rescued chickens, as it has shown to help them live longer and healthier lives. Chickens are the ones who need eggs the most!"

This may seem counterintuitive and against the natural order of things, but Braford takes the pragmatic approach that it may not be ideal, but is in the chickens' best interest. "Industrial laying chickens have been bred to be egg-laying machines," Braford says. "They are far from being natural as nature intended birds to be. Even "heritage breed" chickens lay much more often than wild birds do. These animals are domesticated and require human intervention for survival. They are also industrialized. This isn't a natural situation, and most vegans would hope that these egg layers were no longer bred at all."