Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

handsome in poppies

Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

1) Stop buying eggs and products which contain eggs when they come from factory sources. And yes, 99% of eggs you find will be from sketchy factory farms.

2) While you’re at it, do the same for all meat and dairy raised by sketchy producers, which again, is 99% of what you’ll find. Dumpsters full of newly hatched chicks are just the tip of the iceberg in the animal cruelty department.

3) Seek out small farmers who treat their animals with respect. You might find such people at your local farmers’ market, or you may hear of someone by word of mouth. You might have to drive out to the country, or buy shares in an animal, or join a co-op. It will not be as convenient as running to the market.

And yes, it will be more expensive. But it is possible to shift your dietary patterns to a more vegetable-based diet. If you eat mostly vegetables, using meat and eggs as a flavoring or garnish instead of the centerpiece of the meal, and save the big expensive cuts of meat for feast days, your meals will be affordable, humane, and healthy. You’ll be eating as commonsensical cultures have eaten for eons. And you’ll have the satisfaction of supporting ethical farmers and taking your dollars away from the factory system which is polluting our land and poisoning our collective soul.

Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

4) You may be able to keep your own laying hens, as we do. This is why we keep chickens–to enjoy eggs without guilt. You may even be able to raise meat chickens, depending on where you live.

Just be aware when buying chicks from a hatchery or feed store that if you buy sexed females it is possible that their brothers were all killed at hatching. It depends on the breed you’re buying. If it is a dual purpose breed, rather than an egg production breed, then the boys might have been sold to people who want to raise chicks for meat. I’m guessing on this. At any rate, it is better to buy your pullets from small farms, breeders and individuals who raise chickens naturally.

You could also buy a mixed batch of chicks, called a “straight run” from a heritage or dual purpose breed and raise them all, keep the girls for laying, and either cull the boys yourself when they get to be of eating size, or discretely hand them off to someone who will do so.

5) You could give up on animal products all together–go vegan. I would not blame you, because navigating this crazy food system is like picking your way through a minefield. The majority of our meals are vegan, just because it’s simpler that way. Or you may feel that ethically, killing for food is wrong, and I respect that.

Yet personally, I will not follow this path because, first, I believe that we eat and are eaten, that death is part of life. On a social/political level, I believe small organic farms will be our salvation–in so many ways–and I believe that small organic farms benefit from the presence of farm animals, so I want to support farmers who work in right relationship with animals.

6) Finally, make your own dang mayonnaise.


Thank goodness for the Internet and social networks, which make the task of eating ethically so much easier than it was even just a few years ago.

Ask around for good sources for eggs, meat and milk, and chat up the vendors at your farmers’ market. But in the meantime, Eat Wild is good place to start.

Also, we’ve posted this egg producers chart from The Cornucopia Institute before–it grades egg producers on how well they keep their hens. I don’t believe the practice of killing the male chicks is a factor in their grading, but at least you can support farmers who let their hens hunt and peck out in the sun–or find out how your regular brand scores!  Organic Egg Scorecard.

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for the post!

    Sometimes, it seems that just when I get one ethical loose thread tied up neatly, another one pops out somewhere else. It can become exhausting, but I’ve decided that all I can do is to try to make progress one issue at a time.

    • Exactly! Though exhausting, better to live with integrity and eat mindfully, than give up and choose to be another blind consumer.

  2. It’s a pity they can’t ship all those male chicks to Africa. African’s aren’t fussy about their protein as much as “1st” world inhabitants, and male roosters are just as tasty as chickens when boiled.

    • This reminds me of something I heard about laying hens. Laying hens are culled at 2 yrs, because that is when they peak their productivity–from there on out they still lay, but slightly less, and the profit margins are so slim that the egg producers can’t afford to keep them on post-peak. So millions of 2yr old hens are killed every year. Turns out they’re mostly composted, because it costs more to process them than the meat can be sold for. On a home or small farm scale, old laying hens can be made into soup at least, but it just can’t work like that on the large scale. If you live with the animal you know the value of its life, and you will not want to waste it.

    • @Mrs.Homegrown:
      In the past, we have bought 2-yr-old cull laying hens from a commercial farm in our area. I highly recommend this to anyone.

      It was delightful to watch these feathered ladies turn from timid caged birds with bald patches where they rubbed against the cages, to sleek free-range birds as their instincts awakened. They caught their first bug, spread their wings, scratched in the dirt for the first time ever, took dust baths… it would make you cry to see how happy they were.

      So this could be an alternative to buying chicks for egg-laying. The 2-yr-olds still have another year or more of egg laying potential. Older hens lay larger eggs, but fewer of them; it’s one reason the big farms cull them.

    • Oh, that’s wonderful! It makes me teary eyed just to think of the ladies coming out of prison.

    • There’s a charity in the UK called the British Hen Welfare Trust that does just that- hundreds of thousands of hens have been rehomed after commercial egg production over the last few years. I’m waiting to pick some up at the end of this month. 🙂

  3. Thank you.
    A very good post.While I agree with organizations that try and raise awareness I hate underhandededness. I find I’m becoming more of a cynic, always looking for the real reason.
    I went to the Eat Wild site and was disheartened to find no farmers in my area that I can source from. I live in an agricultural area so I know there must be sources out there.
    I will find them, it will just take time and as you say it’s so very hard to eat ethically.
    All I can do is eat less. At least I no longer eat beef…..or mayonnaise.

  4. excellent article, so many great points! Living in a farming community like i do now, I know exactly where my food comes from… seeing cows grazing and chickens running in the open, everything is naturally in balance as it should be. Because of the imbalance that exists now in most places due to overpopulation, fast food, etc, the point to transition into a more plant based diet overall, keeping meat as a condiment for flavoring or as a special treat for holidays… is ESPECIALLY important to the overall health of the planet because it is such an intensive and often unethical industry both to the animals and mother nature…. and for us too much meat turns the body acidic which can cause disease… So now I save my duckets for special occasions to truly enjoy meat from animals who lived a quality life. You CAN taste the difference!

  5. Yes! Well spoken! I think you are right on – the first step is personal action. Thank you for laying out so many good options. I think there is some validity in the argument that food companies desperately need to change how they source/produce the ingredients to their products, HOWEVER, relying on them to make the change isn’t going to work. It’s a two step process – keep your cash out of their pockets, spend your dollar on what you believe in, AND lead the way in making the changes you want to see (I am tempted to add signing petitions and such to this too – a little activism doesn’t seem to hurt these days, but, the immediate change is Us (we?) the consumers, changing our habits).
    Of course this diatribe is coming from me, who at this point has no backyard to keep chickens in, and thus buys organic eggs. That of course says nothing about how the chicks are treated, and gaurantees precious few perks to make the hen’s life better in the long run 🙁 I have many changes to make.

    • Yes, I agree we shouldn’t give up on the possibility of companies changing for the better. I believe Chipotle did a very good thing when it insisted that the pork it uses be sourced from pigs treated humanely. However, the economics of chickens and eggs are so much about scale that I’m not sure there is any hope of a humane transition in that industry — but I’d love to be surprised.

    • Hellmann’s UK does now use free range eggs in it’s mayonnaise after public pressure. Interesting that it’s US factories don’t.

    • Interesting. In the UK, does “free range” really mean the birds are raised outdoors, on pasture? The term is used for marketing eggs in the US, but it doesn’t actually indicate that the birds were well raised. Here, it basically means that there’s a tiny concrete porch attached to a building that holds thousands of birds, so they could theoretically go outside and see the sky, if they could make their way across the floor, and if they weren’t afraid of the outdoors.

    • Mrs H- sadly, no free range doesn’t mean pastured in the Uk either. There are some excellent chicken farms, but too many are dirty and with no guarantee of any time spent outside.

      It is depressing, but the further we move away from caged hens the better. And they are recognising that people don’t want to support battery farming. Well, as long as it doesn’t cost too much…

  6. Great post! Thank you! I buy strictly from the small, local farmer all of my meat and eggs. It doesn’t cost much more and I know I am getting a better product. Next step, get my own chickens!

  7. Re: Roosters

    My neighbor has been successfully able to keep multiple roosters in with his flock of hens. There is also another chicken keeper in town who adopts both male and female chickens as pets.

    With multiple roosters, you will need adequate space to reduce antagonism. Set up multiple sources of food and water so that the dominant male can’t block out the others. Set up cubby holes or plant shrubs or such that allow the guys to retreat and take a break if they need to.

    Some people would whine about keeping the males because they would have to pay twice as much on feed. I think this is absolutely ridiculous. I pay about $2 per laying hen per month on feed. I don’t buy organic, but you wouldn’t have to buy organic for a non-laying bird. Moreover, roosters have lower protein needs than a laying hen, so, if you wanted, you could find them cheaper feed.

  8. I quickly read your post, and think it’s great you’re at least discussing this. Many people have no clue they are contributing to animal cruelty in the smallest of ways. I’m glad that nowadays, there are mayonaises on the market which are plant-based! And they’re tasty too!

  9. I don’t think Farm Forward is associated with PETA, though they do have some prominent vegans on their board. They are supposedly building a poultry center that would help strengthen the infrastructure for pastured poultry in the US, which I think would be great.

    • Just to clarify, I don’t think they are an arm of PETA, but they work closely with them. From Farm Forward’s own site:

      “Farm Forward has been absolutely essential to building PETA’s ability to influence and negotiate effectively with corporations—Steve Gross [Farm Forward’s Chairman] has provided thousands of hours of pro bono consultation over more than 10 years, and without his input and selfless dedication, some of the greatest victories for farmed animals in U.S. history would not have happened.”

      -Bruce Friedrich, Vice President, PETA

  10. So, My question is this. We buy pastured eggs. The chickens live outside on pasture with shelters at night. The company that farms them supplements that with Non-GMO feed. They do not feed organic because they can’t find a large scale local provider of feed that is both organic AND non-GMO,but I digress. What happens in this situation? We’re paying 4 times the average price for eggs, we know that they’re healthier.But since it’s a commercial farm(although small scale and local) do they purchase their chicks from sources that cull the males? Should I feel guilty that we’re still using a system that culls male chicks? Even though we’re eating eggs from hens that have a great life?

    • I think what you’re doing is fantastic. You’re supporting hen welfare, sourcing healthy eggs for your family, and supporting what sounds like a good poultry farm. Are you asking is it enough? That is a question for saints and philosophers! We all do what we can, we make a lot of compromises along the way. Our current food system requires way too much moral calculus to navigate. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. But I guess you could ask your egg people about where they get their hens. If their customers started asking, they might take notice.

      Truthfully, farms which would raise chickens naturally, breeding chickens on site, hatching all the eggs, raising most of the chicks for meat and keeping some of the hens for laying, is going to be tough. They’re as scarce as hen’s teeth! (har har) That’s why this mayo campaign is rather quixotic. Pretty only people who raise chickens in this old fashioned way are raising them in their backyards. If you can’t source eggs from such farmers for your family, how is Hellmann’s going to find millions of such eggs for their mayo?

  11. I have about a dozen hens and a few of my 4 year-old Sussex still lay just about everyday. I am also fortunate enough to have 2 roosters. Each boy has his own flock.

    I like your point #6 the best and I thank you for the link. Yes, make your own dang mayonnaise!

  12. Thanks for this post (and all your posts- keep ’em comin’! You guys are entertaining, informative, and inspirational!). It is a good reminder of what I sort of already know but sometimes choose to ignore; my resolve to not-ignore is reignited! The animals are so worth it.

  13. Have you tried the 30 second mayonnaise? Put all the ingredients in a wide mouthed jar, put a stick blender in to the bottom, switch on, pull up and voila- mayonnaise!

    It probably doesn’t compare to hand made mayo with a wooden spoon (traditionally no metal should touch it) but it beats jarred gloop and I can make it for packed lunches at 06.00 with no trouble! The rest of the family really like it with garlic blended into it. I would say not to use EVOO; something about using a blade turns it incredibly bitter. You can make the mayo with non-EVOO and then whisk it in at the end for flavour.

    • i’ve never heard about the no metal thing, why is that? i made mayo the other day with a wire whisk for the first time in a while, and my arm was about ready to crack at the end. i shudder at the thought of doing it with a wooden spoon…!

      this is a great post, and i completely agree with what you said about the scapegoat hunting. i’m so frustrated at discourse styles that i see a lot on the left. to me it’s often the sort of thing that only the choir is going to listen to. and what good is that?

      as for happy eggs, i’m lucky to live somewhere where our farmer’s market is the same price or cheaper than the big chain grocery store … depending on what you get of course, if you’re loading up on handmade wild boar sausages it’s going to cost you. my preferred egg lady is on vacation now so she hasn’t been around for a few weeks. her egg price and everyone else’s (all of them free range, organic etc), which is generally around 1.70 Euros, is the same price as the conventional eggs in the grocery store, and half the price of the happy eggs at the grocery store (3 or 4 Euros). why is it so much more expensive in the US? the labeling here is expensive too. and in our case it all makes me wonder what in the hell they’re doing to the organic eggs at the grocery store to make them so expensive. overhead i suppose, but still.

    • Kate- I can’t remember! I read it in a French cookbook and a herb cookbook years ago. Something to do with tainting the flavour maybe?
      I really don’t think I could tell any difference at all though 🙂

      I can tell when I’ve used EVOO when I use a stick blender though- inedibly bitter.

  14. It is a shame that American culture finds the rooster to be a nuisance, when in many other countries, a rooster crowing in the city is no big deal. I blame a lot of mainstream media and Hollywood for depicting roosters as the bane that wakes you up at an ungodly hour, thus ingraining the notion they are highly unwanted. However I find them far less obnoxious than weed whackers, gunning motorcycle engines, and dog barking, and freeway construction at 2am. Well mannered Roosters make very wonderful pets and change the dynamics of a flock in an unbelievably good way. They take care of chicks and dote on their hens, always finding food for them and making sure they eat first. When I had roos around (and contrary to popular belief, multiple boys can get along), introducing new hens was unbelievably easy. Without them there was no doubt the hens would bicker and be petty with each other. I was worried how they would behave with chicks and young pullets, but they accepted them immediately! It was so surprising to me. While I still lived in L.A. I kept my two boys in the westwood/rancho park area under the radar by bringing them into a spacious dog crate in the garage at night. I let them out after 8 am, and my neighbors had no qualms. In the morning they followed me out to the backyard easily. One almost never crowed because the other was the dominant bird, and even then Godot rarely did so because he was busy free ranging and foraging. Unfortunately Portland has become very strict about not allowing roosters in their town and surrounding districts, which I find so hard to believe because it is quite a rural area and so forested, but perhaps it is so much more peaceful, a rooster disturbing the peace is even more amplified. But I digress. A good, friendly rooster is worth their weight in gold. And you wouldn’t believe the range of sounds they make, hens do not even come close to all the neat vocalizations they can do. Velociraptor growls, putt putt putt putts. And a rooster dancing for you is the most charming thing ever! To this day I still miss Godot. I had to help him out of the shell and nurse him to health from splay leg, curled toes and wry neck, and he became the most beautiful and gentlemanly rooster I had ever met. He died unfortunately from unknown reasons at the place I was boarding him at in Portland. I was waiting to find a rooster friendly rental, and was fighting tooth and nail the attempts at banning washington county’s ban on roosters. Last i heard, their vote came up split in the middle, so roosters will continue to be allowed in unincorporated areas of washington county. I have him buried in a tree pot until we find a more permanent place. He really changed my opinion on roosters forever. I could start a campaign de-villifying the rooster.. They are incredibly chivalrous and noble creatures and so wonderful to have around. Not to mention they are absolutely gorgeous! I would recommend anyone who can keep roosters to do so. But just a word of warning, there are a lot of mean, over sex-drived roosters too.. The sweet ones do exist, if you find one, you will never regret having him and wonder why you didn’t get him sooner!

  15. “It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action.”

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! This is always true. Whether it’s CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, animal welfare at factory “farms”, or traffic, we should always ask “am I part of the problem?”

    Walt Kelly had it right in 1970: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  16. I challenge anyone to do the math on starting with dual purpose chickens – raising all chicks in a clutch, keeping the hens until they stop laying, butchering the roosters at meat weight. Now add pasturing, no supplemental lights during winter, organic feed and hatching with mother hens. I know a lot of small scale organic farmers and no one is able to raise chickens this way.

    I think you will find very expensive eggs and meat. Not saying its not a good thing – but are you willing to eat 2-3 eggs a week (less in winter), chicken once a month or less?

    • Excellent point. This is the type of self-examination we all have to do. This is what I love about keeping backyard chickens, raising your own vegetables, etc. It forces you to think about the consequences of your choices. My backyard flock is not the most efficient way to get eggs, and may not be as environmentally-friendly as some large producers’ methods. I will never feed my family entirely from my garden. When I factor in the cost of my time, neither of these is cost-effective either. But when I’m back there working in either, I’m forced to face the realities of manure management, of what kind of low wages it takes to feed my family at a price we can afford, or of the simple fact of the hot sun beating down on me. Over time, I take those meditations and lessons learned with me to the grocery store or farmers market and strive to find the things I need to live at prices I can afford but that also give other living things and ecosystems what they need to live too.

    • I have quite a happy healthy diet with 3-4 eggs a week from my pet chickens. I do not eat chicken meat at all. I don’t buy egg or dairy products from the store.

      There was a time when I had a happy healthy diet with no eggs or animal products at all. There are thousands of vegans still doing it right now.

      I keep chickens for more than just eggs. They are pets and companions and entertainment. They eat my kitchen scraps. Their poop makes my yard nicer. They keep the bug population down. On quiet evenings I will sit out with them and they will purr. When my Ameraucana nearly choked to death on a piece of food, she spent her recovery nestled up next to me on my shoulder for comfort.

      How do you do the math on that? The price of commercially raised birds’ suffering is an externality… you will never see it at the grocery store. And as long as that is the case, the system is enormously broken. If we can only afford eggs a few times per week, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. There are still plenty of other cheap protein sources out there. And if there were less chickens eating less corn and soy, the price of other commodities would go down too. Maybe if there were less demand for corn, farmers would grow healthier crops. Less animals getting antibiotics in their feed would slow down the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

      A world where eggs are too expensive to eat every day doesn’t sound that bad, when you look at the larger context. It sounds like a pretty good place to me.

  17. I understand what Farm Forward is doing here. This has been an effective method for Greenpeace over the last few years as well. By focusing on a large, well branded company its easy to put public pressure on them to change their practices. After Hellman’s they’ll surely find another business and try to chip away at the industry standard by raising awareness and having the public hold the businesses accountable.

    That being said, I raise dual purpose birds. They free-range and we have a lot of predators out here in Kansas. I’ve learned to accept losses from predators or raising them isn’t worth the cost and effort. Some birds have better survival instincts and they manage to thrive out here, naturally roosters tend to be just a little more hardy at an early age than hens due to their size. Currently, my flock of about 25 chickens (and 6 ducks) is almost 50% roosters. None of them fight, they don’t wake me up, and I feed them (all 30 birds) nothing but occasional food scraps and 2 cups of scratch grains a day, just to keep them easy to catch. The best part of having roos is that they are better watchdogs than my Anatolian Shepherd and I have a much higher success rate with a larger population than without. They flat out make my life easier. -Still… a couple will get eaten before too long since I’ll let the broody hens do their thing and keep the cycle of life going.

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  19. I really want to know why can’t all these males chicks be shipped to poor countries or areas in the states that need food!?
    Its just terrible they are killed and theres people poor and starving. There has to be a better way. I don’t know how people could do this job of pushing these little chicks along the belt seeing the cruelty to them and not even care. Its not right, its just sick.

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