For the next few days, anyone walking along a UK high street will see endless images of fluffy yellow chicks. Chick cards, soft toy chicks, plastic chicks - the list is endless. But this year, one item really stood out for me: cupcakes with bright yellow icing, made to look like a chick. I couldn't help wondering how many of the people buying these appealing cakes were aware of the cruelty inflicted on real chicks in order to produce the eggs that they contained. The answer is probably not many, since the fate of male chicks is one of the egg industry's darkest and best-kept secrets.
Once they have been hatched inside industrial incubators, these chicks will be 'processed' using an automated system. Male chicks clearly cannot lay eggs, and are considered too scrawny for meat production. They are typically killed by gassing, so that their bodies can be kept intact and sold as food for reptiles. Another method of killing these unfortunate animals, which is perfectly legal, involves shredding them alive in a giant mincing machine. I wouldn't recommend searching on Youtube or Google for 'killing of male chicks', but if you do, I can guarantee you'll be thinking twice before buying eggs.
Sadly, this cruel destruction of male chicks is universal to the whole egg industry, whether the production method is intensive or so called 'higher welfare'. The unpalatable truth is that consumers support this barbarity whenever they buy boxed eggs, or any of the other products eggs turn up in, including fresh pasta, cake and quiches.
So that's the fate of male chicks, but what about the females? They may escape the gas chamber or macerating machine, but the chances are they'll be facing a short life of utter misery. Many people think that caged hens are a thing of the past, but the truth is that around half the eggs laid in the UK come from hens kept permanently in cages. While the traditional 'battery cage' no longer exists, the so-called 'enriched' cages that replaced them are little better. How any environment could be less enriched is difficult to imagine. The area per bird is not much bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, and the 'enrichments' consist of a scratching area (usually a small plastic mat) and a screened off nest-box, which is not required to have any nesting or bedding material in it.
A few months ago we filmed inside two typical 'enriched' caged egg farms in the UK, and what we found was shocking. Crowded into cages, some of the hens were bald across large sections of their body. I'll never forget one poor hen who looked as though she had already been partially plucked. Featherless across most of her body, her comb had collapsed and her beak had been cut, but she stared intently at the camera, allowing us to reveal her suffering to the world.
I'd always felt uncomfortable about buying caged eggs, and used to religiously seek out free-range ones. For a long time I purchased my free-range eggs with a clear conscience, and a reassuring mental image of hens scratching contentedly round a field. It wasn't until I met some vegans and did some painful research of my own, that I realised the truth about 'free-range' eggs. While they may not be caged, 'free-range' hens are typically crammed into huge sheds, and have to fight through crowds to even make it to the outside. If they do reach the outside, they're vulnerable to disease, struggle to cope with the weather and have a high risk of dying before they can be slaughtered. A recent investigation by Hillside Animal Sanctuary shone a light on the squalor and misery that can occur on 'free-range' egg farms.
Fortunately though, there is an alternative. It's never been easier to drop eggs, and other animal products, and follow a cruelty-free vegan diet. Since you can now either buy, or easily make, egg-free versions of cakes, quiches, mayonnaise and even meringues, there really is no reason to buy eggs. And, if you wanted to make an Easter treat that celebrated saving chicks, the wonderful Parsley Soup recipe website has some great ideas.