Ellen DeGeneres, the beloved talk-show host, comedienne and humanitarian has come under attack by the vegan community for eating eggs. Mind you, they're not CAFO eggs that were produced by hens raised in deplorable conditions, they're Ellen's neighbor's eggs. And considering the star lives in one of the nicest areas of Los Angeles, we can only guess that her neighbor hens might actually live a whole lot better than many of us. So, is she wrong?
Critics of DeGeneres' choice to eat eggs included comments like this one from Sarah E. Brown’s on the website Vegansaurus: "Eating eggs from chickens that are “happy” is common among the elite Eco-conscious set in Hollywood and beyond. The belief goes a little something like this: Happy chickens = happy eggs = we can all eat eggs and no longer be vegan but still be ethical eaters, because, hey, the chickens are happy, right?!"
The debate about what we eat and why is as contentious as discussions on religion, politics, abortion. As a vegan for nearly two decades, I've experienced this firsthand more times than I can count, and not because I'm bad at math, but because it simply happens at virtually every meal with non-vegans. Meat eaters obsess over what's on my plate as if vegetables just landed in a spaceship from a far away world—as if my distaste for ribs and bacon is somehow, a crime. Just last week, after refusing to eat a curry dish made with "a little bit of butter" a friend told me I was insane.
Adopting a vegan diet as a teenager, I did my share of pontificating, bullying and finger shaking at the meat-eaters in my life. I worked at PETA. Going to great lengths to spare the lives of innocent animals is something most of us would do for our pets, so why not a chicken? The argument that some animals are for cuddling and others for carving has never made sense to me, nor has it to countless other vegans, including Ellen.
And despite what her critics say, Ms. DeGeneres is not eating an animal, save if a fertilized egg makes it into her omelet. In fact, she's eating arguably the most ethical animal product out there besides scraping carrion off the side of the road.
Chickens lay eggs. They do this, regardless of whether we eat them or not. It is a natural part of their life. It involves no slaughter, no artificial insemination (cows, goats, sheep, humans—only produce milk when pregnant or after giving birth, and milk production requires the constant impregnation of farm animals.) But, despite the natural and rather simple process of laying eggs, egg-laying hens are the most horrendously treated animals in the food system. Called battery hens, they're forced to live in conditions that would make most people vomit at the mere sight and smell of such a hell on earth. Many people who have seen a CAFO up close have nightmares for years after just one visit. The chickens live in tiny, cramped cages. The wretched smell of their feces makes the air toxic and painful to breath. It burns your eyes and nose. The smart and curious chicken cannot spread her wings. She can't walk. It's a dark and scary existence that truly deserves the association with the Nazi concentration camps it resembles.
But Ellen does not eat these eggs.
Hens don't need much to be happy—a little grass, some sun, maybe a dirt bath and a place to spread her wings. If only we could get by with as little. Like Joel Salatin showed us in the Oscar-nominated film Food Inc., his free-roaming hens help the rest of his farm by fertilizing the soil and eating pests. The eggs produced by these hens are worlds apart from the industrial options, where besides the unthinkable living conditions, the animals are fed unnatural diets of genetically modified grains, antibiotics, and growth hormones that contribute to a number of human health issues.
And while food issues continue to make their way to the forefront of discussions in this country thanks to efforts from folks like Michelle Obama and New York City's Michael Bloomberg (who just banned sugary sodas) for taking obesity to task, the sad truth is most Americans still have no clue where their food really comes from and why something as simple as an egg is actually not very simple at all. If Ellen is able to start that dialogue with her viewers (and on her brilliant website dedicated to healthy eating), there's no telling just what kind of impact that could have on factory farming, our food system, our nation's health. Maybe a world full of "happy" hens is exactly what we need, omelets and all.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger