With its price up and its image down, the industrial egg is starting to crack.
Years from now, when the human race no longer sources its binding and emulsifying proteins from Gallus gallus domesticus, it may look back on November 6, 2018, as the day the egg cracked. That was the day California voters drove a stake through the heart of the caged-hen industry by easily passing Proposition 12, which requires all eggs sold in the state to be from cage-free facilities by the end of 2021, forcing every egg producer in the country to comply or lose their largest market.
Proposition 12 was vigorously opposed by the egg industry because it will raise the price of conventional eggs. That alone wouldn’t be enough to hobble the industry; if consumers have no alternative, they’ll eat the higher prices. But it happens to have arrived only a few weeks after the first impressive egg substitute hit the market, a mung-bean-based formulation called Just Egg that can fool most of the people most of the time.
Together, the two developments will squeeze the egg from opposite ends, pressuring its viability. And though they seem unrelated—a ballot initiative sponsored by the Humane Society and a Silicon Valley startup—both developments can be traced to a single man: Josh Balk, a wholesome, curly-haired 38-year-old who may be America’s foremost animal-rights activist. In his own quiet way, Balk has been toiling for years to eliminate the factory farming of animals. It has not always gone well, but by the end of 2018 it was beginning to look as though the United Egg Producers, at least, were no match for him.
The egg was not designed to suspend oil and vinegar in a perfect emulsion. Its highest calling is not as a binder for flour, milk, and blueberries. Eggs just happen to contain proteins with terrific emulsifying, gelling, binding, and foaming properties. For centuries, the egg handled its culinary jobs well enough that few other candidates were considered.
But the egg is not perfect. Producing a dozen eggs requires four pounds of feed, 636 gallons of water, and a discomfiting amount of antibiotics. Salmonella and other diseases are constant threats, as are activists who object to the grim lives of industrial hens. Most of our 320 million layer hens spend their lives in tiny “battery” cages stacked five high in vast, fluorescent-lit warehouses. For every one of them, there was a day-old male counterpart that was culled after hatching and tossed live into a metal grinder. It’s an ugly business.
As long as the egg was cheap, public awareness of the conditions inside egg factories was low, and there was no competition, the egg’s position seemed secure. Now, though, that’s all changing.
It’s also an inefficient one. As a protein-producing widget, chickens kind of suck. They poop, they move around, they fight, they get sick, they die. If we were looking today for something to keep our cookies from falling apart, the reproductive cells of the Southeast Asian jungle fowl would probably not be our first thought.
But as long as the egg was cheap, public awareness of the conditions inside egg factories was low, and there was no competition, the egg’s position seemed secure. Now, though, that’s all changing.
Food startups have been casting their disruptive gaze over the food industry for years, seeing lots of targets. The environmental footprint of meat production is extraordinarily high, and numerous companies are developing substitutes for beef, dairy, pork, and chicken. But those are tough takedowns. A steak or roast chicken has a whole gestalt of flavor, texture, and glory that is difficult to replicate. Likewise, the free-range, farm-fresh egg won’t soon go out of style. But the industrial egg is an unloved, $8-billion utility ingredient with a serious PR problem. When the high-tech hyenas eyed the egg, they saw a limping gazelle trailing the herd.
The egg business has looked wobbly for some time. Scandals such as 2010’s salmonella outbreak that sickened tens of thousands of people forced the industry to invest more in sanitation and monitoring, increasing its cost of doing business. In 2015, Avian flu ripped through Midwest poultry farms, destroying tens of millions of hens and temporarily pushing the price of eggs beyond the reach of many food companies. Avian flu cost U.S. taxpayers $950 million and the egg industry billions more, and is fully expected to return.
Balk, whose advocacy has led to California’s first-of-its-kind cage-free egg ban.