Two years ago, I looked into the way that eggs are regulated and sold in Canada. We have a marketing board – the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency – and they’re responsible for managing the national egg supply. For real. And they’ve set up a system the encourages egg producers to have very large farms – the average has at least 10,000 birds. If you want to know more you can click on some of those links.
Most of the hens on these very large farms are housed in battery cages. The SPCA says that 95% of eggs are produced this way. Battery cages are very small, and many hens are placed together in a single cage. They don’t have room to lie down or stretch their wings, and their beaks may be trimmed in a painful procedure in order to keep them from harming one another. After about a year of laying production slows, and in Canada the hens are then sent to slaughter. In some countries they’re subjected to forced molting which involves immersing them in darkness and withholding food.
Because I have concerns about the way that battery hens are treated, I buy most of my eggs at my local farmers market. I can actually trust that the hens are handled humanely. When I buy my eggs at the grocery store I opt for free range eggs, but that isn’t always a guarantee of quality of life for the hens that laid them. I think that the best way to ensure that your food is ethical is to meet the person who produced it.
Blue are from my farmers market, brown are organic and free range from the store, and white are conventional eggs
I run into a problem every year at around this time, though. Easter is coming up, and in order to make really pretty Easter eggs, you need white eggs. The colour of the egg depends on the breed of the chicken that laid it. It does not vary with the way that chickens are treated. But for some reason, organic and free range eggs are pretty much always brown, and eggs from battery hens are pretty much always white. There are exceptions, of course. I recently bought some really pretty bluish hen’s eggs at my farmers market, and I’ve heard that there are stores that carry organic and free range white eggs. But I haven’t seen any of them, myself.
I suspect that the colour difference has to do with marketing. We view food differently based on its colour. Brown eggs somehow seem more natural. White eggs seem cleaner and maybe even a little bit industrial. When white eggs were very popular, choosing brown as your colour when you produced organic and free range eggs set you apart. There could be practical considerations too, I suppose. Some producers carry both conventional and free range eggs, and the colour divide helps ensure that everything ends up in the right carton.
The Easter eggs I dyed last year
Of course, I could colour brown eggs for Easter. I know people who have done that. But they don’t take on colour as well, and you can’t get the same pastel tones. There’s just something about those pinks and yellows and blues that makes me think of spring and Easter and all things hopeful. Once again, the colour of my food affects the way that I view it.
Maybe I should suck it up. Maybe I should accept that if I want ethical Easter eggs, they won’t be as pretty. I can understand that if there’s only one day a year when I actually want white eggs, that egg producers can’t really ramp up production just for me. Chickens produce at a constant rate, and we don’t want to bring a bunch of new hens into the world for a month just so that my Easter eggs can look good.
I’ll come clean and say that right now I have some conventional white eggs in my fridge. I plan to dye them with my kids. My daughter Hannah is really, really excited. She loves that they’re white, and she has grand plans to draw on some with her crayons. And I feel guilty, but apparently not enough to take a stand.
I wonder what you think. How do you choose your eggs? And would you pass up white eggs for Easter for ethical reasons? Please tell me!