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.
The industrial egg is an unloved, $8-billion utility ingredient with a serious PR problem.
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.
Back then, cage-free eggs comprised just 3 percent of the market, and Prop 2 did little to change that, since it only applied to eggs produced in California. Balk continued to press the food industry to reduce its use of battery cages, but made little progress. His low point came in 2011, when he met with the top executives of one of the largest users of eggs. “These were really high players,” he told me over coffee in San Francisco, “and really great people. And not one of them disagreed with me about battery cages. But they said, ‘There’s nothing we can do. Cage-free eggs would mean higher costs. And we have to cut costs.’”
Balk remembers sitting on his flight back to D.C. after the meeting, leaning his head against the window in defeat. Perhaps the only solution, he thought, was to invent an egg replacement that tasted as good as the real thing and cost the same or less. So he called up Josh Tetrick, his friend from high school who had been doing public-service work in Africa. Together, they launched Hampton Creek, with the goal of eliminating eggs from as many foods as possible by discovering plant proteins with the same functionality. Balk kept his day job at the Humane Society, while Tetrick became CEO of the new company.
The “Two Joshes,” as they later became known, had bonded as star athletes at Philadelphia’s Radnor High School in 1995. Balk was already a vegetarian, and he converted Tetrick. He kept up the advocacy in college, cajoling his baseball team to protest circuses during road trips, and later, as a volunteer for Compassion over Killing, where he became one of the first people to go undercover to document animal abuses. He strapped on a hidden camera and took a job in a Perdue slaughterhouse, killing chickens eight hours a day. It traumatized him. Every evening, he’d drag himself back to his apartment, try to wash off the stench, fall into bed, and break down.
Cage-free eggs are more expensive to produce—91 cents per dozen compared to 67 cents for those from cages.
Eventually Balk joined the Humane Society, where he kept chipping away at the egg industry. By 2014, public opinion had swung against battery cages, and the same companies that had refused to eat the extra cost of cage-free eggs in 2011 raced to do just that. Unilever, Kellogg, Starbucks, Burger King, Walmart, Dunkin’ Donuts, Compass Group, and others had already committed to transitioning to cage-free eggs when McDonald’s joined in September 2015. That started a wave, as companies scrambled not to be caught on the wrong side of the issue.
Today, 18 percent of eggs sold in the U.S. are cage-free, and that number is about to rise dramatically thanks to California’s Proposition 12, for which Balk was again the mastermind. Prop 12, he told me, “is the most far-reaching law for farm animals in the history of the world. No country has a law this strong.”
Prop 12 applies only to California, but because California is the largest market in the nation, its standards become de facto national benchmarks. Both Balk and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate that cage-free eggs will have to account for 75 percent of the industry within eight years in order to meet demand. No one is building battery cages anymore.
But cage-free eggs are more expensive to produce—91 cents per dozen, according to one academic study, compared to 67 cents for those from cages. Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, estimated the cost of building new cage-free facilities at $40 per bird. Switching 200 million caged birds to cage-free would cost $8 billion. “It’s an incredibly expensive endeavor,” Gregory said. “If consumers want this, they’re going to have to pay for it.”
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
Or find a replacement. Balk likes to point to the evolution of the milk market, where alternative milks such as soy and almond were once considered fringe, then gained market share to the point that mainstream dairy companies invested in them. “When Dean Foods bought Silk, they transformed it,” he told me. “They made the packaging mainstream, and people started incorporating it into their diet.”
It turned out the big players were essentially agnostic to the source of the white liquid they sold. The same thing is happening in the meat industry, where companies such as Tyson and Perdue have invested in lab-grown meat. As Perdue chairman, Jim Perdue, put it, “Our vision is to be the most trusted name in premium protein.” In case anyone missed the subtext, Perdue elaborated: “It doesn’t say premium meat protein, just premium protein. That’s where consumers are going.”
Awaiting those consumers is Just, the company formerly known as Hampton Creek, which is best known for Just Mayo, its egg-free sandwich spread—and for its surreal skirmish with Unilever over the definition of “mayonnaise.” But it has expanded into lab-grown meat (it expects to have a chicken-replacement product in stores in 2019) and the newly released Just Egg.
Hampton Creek launched Just Mayo, which used pea protein instead of egg for emulsification, in 2013. The next year, shortly after announcing big contracts with Whole Foods and Walmart, the startup was sued by Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s, which cited a 1977 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation that defined mayonnaise as a food made from vegetable oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and egg.
Eight-billion-dollar industries do not disappear overnight, but when conditions change, they sometimes wither surprisingly fast.
It was a PR windfall for Hampton Creek, since the only party that considered Just Mayo’s egglessness a problem was Unilever. Ultimately, FDA ruled that Just Mayo could keep its name and its label with minor design adjustments, because “mayo” was no longer synonymous with “mayonnaise.” (Seeing the writing on the wall, Unilever launched its own egg-free mayo in February 2016.)
That should have been the beginning of a triumphant period for Hampton Creek, but it wasn’t. Caught in the public spotlight, Hampton Creek’s cracks began to show. Several ex-employees claimed it exaggerated the sophistication of its technology (a claim I’ve heard repeated throughout Silicon Valley), and they accused Josh Tetrick of playing fast and loose with the rules.
Tetrick is the model of a modern major CEO: young, aggressive, seemingly born to the TED stage, able to milk venture capital from a stone. It was alleged that he orchestrated large buys of Just Mayo from stores in order to prime the pump and inflate sales figures, which would be fraud. There was a failed coup, people were fired, the entire board resigned, and the company went from being the darling of food-tech to its Theranos.
Hampton Creek went dark for a while, and many expected its demise. But in 2017 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) closed their investigations with no finding of wrongdoing, and the company reemerged as Just, with new packaging and a humbler attitude. Instead of courting controversy, it has been quietly rolling out its products. Its mayo and dressings are now a presence in many American supermarkets, with about $20 million in annual sales.
With Just, Unilever, and many other companies now offering egg-free mayos, dressings, cake mixes, protein powders, and other applications where the egg is no longer needed—and where its allergenic and non-vegan issues are liabilities—it seems likely that the industrial egg will eventually disappear from most processed foods. But in late 2018, an even more serious threat to the egg’s future hit stores.
Unlike Just Mayo or Cookie Dough, Just Egg has no other ingredients to hide behind. It has to beat a scrambled egg at its own game
Just Egg is a mung-bean-based, plug-and-play replacement for scrambled eggs. The company sourced hundreds of protein-rich plants from around the globe, separated the proteins, and tested them individually for things like foaming, gelation, taste, and texture. It found it could make certain mung-bean proteins act almost exactly like an egg.
Just Egg comes in a plastic 12-ounce bottle, and you use it just as you would a scrambled egg: omelets, pancakes, French toast. About a third of the nation’s 88 billion table eggs produced each year are sold in liquid or precooked form to food companies, fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, caterers, and anyone else who doesn’t want to crack their own eggs. They are more functional than tasty.
Just Egg has been fast out of the gate, carried by thousands of outlets in dozens of states, from mainstream supermarkets like Safeway to hipster vegetarian chains like Boston’s Clover Food Lab. “We’ve tried a lot of different egg substitutes over the years, including earlier versions of the Just Egg,” Ayr Muir, Clover’s founder, told me over the phone. “And we’ve always said no. They weren’t nearly good enough. But this is actually delicious. If I went to Dunkin’ Donuts and swapped out their egg patty for this, no one would notice. That’s amazing.” Muir said Just Egg wasn’t yet competitive on cost with conventional eggs, which benefit from scale and agricultural subsidies, but once it is, “It will be a no-brainer.”
So should you switch? If I’d written this story two years ago, when I first sampled Silicon Valley’s nouveau proteins, I’d have said they were at the level of the horseless carriage in the 1890s: promising, weird, fun for early adopters, but the average American should stick with the horse. The new products are more like the Model T. They work, they’re easy to like, and they begin to make the analog look a little bit foolish.
In my kitchen, I melted a pad of coconut oil in a nonstick skillet as I shook up a bottle of Just Egg. The ingredients were surprisingly simple: water, mung bean, canola oil, plus some natural coloring and preservatives. It felt strange to be holding a bottle of egg instead of cracking shells, but I thought of the veggie burger, which took only a few years to go from crime against nature to cookout staple.
I poured the opaque yellow liquid into the hot pan and watched it bubble. This, I figured, was the ultimate test. Unlike Just Mayo or Cookie Dough, Just Egg has no other ingredients to hide behind. It has to beat a scrambled egg at its own game.
I pushed the golden mass around with my spatula, watching the curds form. An egg has this odd property where it builds volume as it cooks. The Just scientists had told me that earlier iterations of their “egg” cooked like a sheet of paper, but this built nicely upon itself.
I flopped it onto my plate; it jiggled and wiggled like an egg. I tried a forkful. The texture was good, a bit spongier than a really good farm egg but identical to most quick-service eggs. It tasted lean and clean, no doubt because it had fewer calories than an egg and no saturated fat, and less eggy. I sprinkled on a little pink salt, which has sulfur in it, and immediately there was the familiar eggy smell. Sulfur is responsible for the miasmal aroma of eggs, and so far the Just scientists haven’t figured out a way to bind sulfur into their mix. But as I ate, I wondered if I might come to prefer the cleaner taste.
Eight-billion-dollar industries do not disappear overnight, but when conditions change, they sometimes wither surprisingly fast. Whale oil, encyclopedias, VCRs—history is littered with things that were a part of daily life, until they weren’t. When the horseless carriage first appeared in New York in the 1890s, many found it soulless and laughably inconvenient. They preferred the familiarity of the animal. But New York’s horses also dropped 4 million pounds of manure on the roads every day, and streetcar horses were so poorly treated that their life expectancy was just two years. Often they were left to rot in the streets. Cars didn’t seem weird for long. There were 200,000 horses on New York City streets in 1900. By 1920, they were gone.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit news organization.
Rowan Jacobsen’s research on plant-based proteins was supported by a fellowship from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism.