A growing band of ‘veggans’ believe eating ‘cruelty-free’ eggs is justifiable because it fosters the ethical treatment of hens. Needless to say, true vegans disagree. Let the debate commence
What do you call a vegan who eats eggs? A) not a vegan or B) someone who is vegan but has found a way to marry the occasional oeuf with their ethical beliefs? Obviously, answer A is technically correct, since a vegan diet by definition excludes animal products. However, there’s a growing band of ethical “veggans”: people who define themselves as vegans but eat “cruelty-free” eggs.
These aren’t just any eggs. We’re not talking a carton of free-range from M&S, or even organic ones from the farmer’s market. “Cruelty-free” eggs come from hens that are considered too old for commercial laying and would otherwise be killed at around 72 weeks old. Instead, they are free to roam and live out their natural lives. The farmers or sanctuary volunteers looking after them only collect and sell the eggs they find. Some vegans choose to eat these eggs, believing that doing so actively helps the hens. “Selling the eggs helps pay for the upkeep of the sanctuary,” says Linda Turvey, who runs the Hen Heaven sanctuary in Sussex. “The premium we charge on the eggs is the hens’ retirement fund,” says Isobel Davies, co-founder of Hen Nation, which sells its cruelty-free eggs from North Yorkshire online.
James, a dancer from Yorkshire, is a vegan. His “old favourite” was a fried-egg sandwich, so when he ordered his first carton of Hen Nation eggs that was what he made. It was “a considered decision”, he says. “I am vegan for ethical reasons, so I was interested in finding out what they meant by cruelty-free, and how the company worked.”
Although he continues to buy the eggs occasionally, he has mixed feelings. “I’m conflicted, because I feel that putting money into a company that does good might be more useful than opting out. But, fundamentally, my opinion is that we don’t need to eat any animal products, so maybe I should lead by example.” James isn’t the only self-defined vegan making an exception for these special eggs. “I get so many emails from vegans about our eggs,” says Davies. “One woman said she couldn’t sleep the night before trying them because she was so excited.” Turvey reports similar enthusiasm. “I get calls from all over the country. Virtually all the eggs are going to vegans or their friends and family.” She recalls one man from London who caught the train to Horsham, a bus to Henfield and then walked a mile and a half to the Sussex sanctuary just to get some eggs for his vegan daughter.
There aren’t enough eggs to meet the increased interest Hen Heaven has had from vegans in the past few years. “I recently got a call from a new vegan who works out in the gym and wanted to order 80 eggs a week for the protein,” says Turvey. With only 100 hens, demand far outstrips the sanctuary’s variable supply. “I don’t do anything to make them lay, so each egg is a gift,” she says. In fact, these days “it’s like an old people’s home ... most of the hens don’t lay, but the big Sussex hens we have can live to 15, and I’ve been getting the little, brown, ex-factory hens to 11.”
One way to guarantee a supply of cruelty-free eggs is to adopt your own chickens from the British Hen Welfare Trust. The charity rehomes about 50,000 ex-commercial hens every year. “We certainly have vegans who adopt our hens. Some feel comfortable eating their eggs because they see how happy their hens are; some prefer to give them as gifts to family and friends,” says founder Jane Howorth. “The important point for us as a charity is that the hens have a caring home [in which] to live out a free-range retirement,” she adds, pointing out that the charity doesn’t associate with any particular beliefs or groups.
The Vegan Society says it is behind rehoming hens. “Rescuing battery hens is a wonderful, compassionate practice that the Vegan Society absolutely endorses,” says spokesperson Jimmy Pierce. Unsurprisingly, however, it doesn’t support eating their produce. “We ask people to show their support by giving their time or donations, rather than buying the eggs to eat. Eggs are not ours to take – hens can’t give consent.”
Many veggans believe that, since the egg industry isn’t going anywhere, supporting the producers of cruelty-free eggs by buying their produce does more good than harm. (Add it to the list of vegan hot-potatoes: is it OK to eat honey? What about figs pollinated by wasps?) But if you think the concept of cruelty-free eggs is borderline, just wait for … cruelty-free milk. Cow Nation’s Davies is looking for a producer to work with her to provide a retirement home for cows (both female dairy calves and male calves, who would otherwise be killed at birth or reared for veal) and let them live out their lives. What do you call a vegan who eats eggs and drinks milk? At this point, you probably have to say “a vegetarian”.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010